Disrupted Realism isn’t exactly a style and it may not even be a tendency. It is perhaps best described as an overlapping set of developments in painting that crosses international borders and stylistic boundaries. This exhibition is best understood as a sampling, not a cross section, of works by diverse artists who share a common motivation: they are interested in re-ordering the appearances of their subjects as a way of entering them and endowing them with varied intuitive and personal meanings and associations.
Sparked by diverse concerns including the evocation of memories, reflections on personal experience, an interest in painterly improvisation and/or the relationship of painting to photographic, cinematic and digital images, each artist has found a way to re-invent their relationship to the real. Their probing and inventive art says something about how they feel as individuals and about the possibilities of painting in an era when realism, once a scarce and highly prized commodity produced by highly trained and skilled artists, has become something that anyone with a Smartphone can produce and disseminate in seconds.
It is entirely possible that when future art historians look back at the phenomenon of Disrupted Realism will see a group of artists who used painting to represent inner truths during a time when easy mechanical realism was so often used in the service of lies.
In the middle of the 19th century, when the first commercially produced photographs began to appear, they were blurry. In fact, the earliest photograph to include people, “Boulevard du Temple” by Louis Daguerre, shows only two very soft, shadowy figures: a boot polisher and his customer. The other people who peopled the boulevard have vanished, since they were walking and the camera was not quick enough to capture their images. In the decades that followed, exposures got shorter, lenses got better and crisp, sharp photographs of people (and other subjects) became commonplace and inexpensive. A revolution in realism was in the offing. For the first time in history a mechanical device, the camera, could do what skilled artists had been struggling and striving to do for centuries: record the world and its inhabitants with precision.
It must have seemed, at first, that the camera was going to put painters out of business. Photography interrupted the tradition of painting and threw its traditional roles and purposes into question. Among the questions its emergence raised is this one: “Why should an artist bother to spend a lifetime understanding form, perspective and light when a camera can record and depict those things mechanically?” It was a tough question then and it remains a tough question now. And we all know that the answer for some modern artists, Warhol for example, was to toss in the towel. Of course, photography did not wipe out the tradition of painting: in many important respects photography became a helpful tool for painters.
As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, Impressionist artists like Degas gleaned new ideas about composition and focus from photography and Corot made prints called cliché verres that are essentially drawings printed in a darkroom. Academic artists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, used photography as direct source material, moving towards what we now know as Photorealism. But the artists, who took the most radical course of action, including Cezanne and the Cubists who followed him, realized that the most dynamic course of action was to steal the idea of multiple points of view and move in away from mimesis towards subjectivity and feeling. Feeling had, of course, always been there in painting - try and imagines a Rembrandt without it - but what Cezanne in particular comprehended was that painting now had the potential to become a vehicle for sensory input (and human emotion) in a way photography, its newborn “frenemy”, could not match.
"Art is a personal apperception" he once stated, “which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting.”
At the risk of over-simplifying, this seems a good point to offer a thesis: the history of modern art after Cezanne would not have been possible without the model of heroic individualism and subjectivity that he provided. Cezanne was the anti-camera; profoundly human and always ready to ask the question “Is this what I see" rather than resorting to mimesis. Cezanne, who acknowledged the “petit sensation” of each brushstroke, is the great-grandfather of Disrupted Realism.
So now, in the 21st century, Realism is still with us, but it is often dismissed or denigrated by mainstream critics: it is commonly described (unfairly) as a “conservative” style. Despite that misconception, skill meaning the skill that supports realism is making a comeback in ateliers and some schools, although the artists who knock themselves out attaining it often find themselves knocked down a peg by critics or reduced to earning $20 per hour making paintings for Jeff Koons. Skill, as a starting point, is also the common denominator in Disrupted Realism. If you don’t have skill to start with, there is nothing to disrupt. A new generation of artists, trained by the renegade realists of the Slade School, in ateliers and in other realist enclaves across the globe, evidently has skill to burn. They understand that representational painting supported by the scaffolding of traditional realism is once again a field open for exploration. Painting allows them to deflect, hybridize and transform images as they search for associations, memories or transitory meanings.
Francis Bacon once said that his paintings were blurred because his memories were blurred, and that kind of inclination to blur to suggest emotions and memories is a prerogative of the artists of Disrupted Realism. The flexibility of paint itself, energized by the touch of the artist’s brush, allows them to channel the manic energy and evanescence of contemporary experience directly into their imagery. In a time of rapid change and vast uncertainty Disrupted Realism stands as a metaphor for contemporary experience across the globe and across culture.
The world outside us moves faster and faster, offering less and less coherence as we are engulfed by a tsunami of mechanical images that we mainly glimpse while multi-tasking. But inside, we remain human, questioning, remembering and doing what we can to make sense of our feelings and experiences. We yearn for deep feelings and inner truths that no mimetic image, painted or photographed, can capture.
Disrupted Realism is on view now through February 24th 2018 at Stanek Gallery.