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May 29, 2008

Sensationally Traditional

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Is the imbalance between Modernist and more traditional painting in the process of being redressed?

I wish.

Since any such redressment will probably be a long-term process, it's too soon to tell. Too soon for me, anyway. Nevertheless, I can grasp at straws as well as the next person.

The most recent straw in the wind is Juliette Aristides' latest book Classical Painting Atelier. (She previously wrote a book about drawing that also can be found in bookstores or ordered via Amazon.)


Aristides, according to the cover flap bio, trained on the East Coast and now is an instructor here in Seattle at the Gage Academy of Art. I am greatly embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of the Gage until I read that snippet. Seeking atonement as well as trying to satisfy curiosity, I did a little Mapquesting and hopped into my trusty Chrysler to find the joint. And voila! It is housed in a former girls school on the grounds of St. Mark's Episcopal cathedral on Capitol Hill. According to their Web page, evening drawing sessions are available; I'd be tempted to sign up, but I travel too much to get my money's worth.

Back to the book. It contains much useful information and serious art students should read it because Aristides knows (and demonstrates by her own painting) what she's talking about. For me, the highlights were the illustrations. Besides the Usual Suspects such as Rembrandt, Hals, Velázquez and Vermeer, she includes fine paintings by more recent artists including Cecelia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, William Bouguereau and Albert Handerson Thayer.

And, related to the matter of a potential return to traditional painting, Aristides included works by living artists, some of whom who are established such as Andrew Wyeth and Odd Nerdrum, and others who are early in their careers. Here are some examples I grabbed off the Internet. The ones farther down might be dicey if you are at work, so use caution. Of course you can justify viewing them because, after all, they are Art.


Transparent and Solid by Gary Faigin, 2000
Let's start off with two still-life paintings. The objects and eye-level viewpoint are contemporary, but the handling is Academic. Interesting mix.

Mertz No. 11 by John Morra, 2006
Okay, this one wasn't in the book. I couldn't find an image of Mertz No. 2 on the Web, so this will have to do. Similar to what Faigin was attempting.

Corner Window 2 by Daniel Sprick, 2001
A still life with a whiff of landscape. Plus a dab of Surrealism; it looks like those tulips are suspended in thin air.

Flora by Nelson Shanks, 1994
Apologies for the small size -- it rated a full page in the book. What fascinates me is the light source that shines upwards at about a 60 degree angle from the horizontal and its effects on the subject.

Carolina by Jacob Collins, 2006
I think this is Collins' best painting yet. For more information on Collins and his current art instruction activities, click here.

The paintings should speak for themselves. But I hope you carry away the message that contemporary representational art does not have to be icky and mindless.



posted by Donald at May 29, 2008


No reaction whatsoever to the paintings down to the Collins. Are we supposed to be wowed by their technique? And when I went to the Collins site: too careful. Painting has to be a wake up call -- or it's nothing. It has to be impassioned. Severe academic work can be impassioned: Poussin; Richard Estes. But in their very different ways they were breaking new ground. This is all formulaic stuff. The painter knows what he wants when he begins. And he gets there. So what?

Posted by: ricpic on May 29, 2008 9:36 PM

As I clicked through the Collins site, I did find myself wondering, why is this guy so attracted to his dim, dim studio, and his equally dim interiors? What kind of life is going on in there? I would have liked to know more.

As for the portraits and figure work, I will certainly acknowledge Mr. Collins as extremely competent (which is NOT a left-handed compliment) but I would say that "Carolina" is the painting with the most sense of mystery, or perhaps life.

The paintings that gave me the most hope for him were, to my surprise, his landscapes. One or two of them suggest that he might find something interesting out in the big, uncontrolled world of nature.

Anyway, Donald, thanks for the update. By clicking through and googling some of the artists, I found my way to quite a bit of interesting art.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 30, 2008 5:16 PM

I agree, these paintings seem dead, and the portraits kind of evoke embarrassment. As much as I hate what passes for contemporary art, I'm not impressed. But I'm glad to hear that Bouguereau is getting some props for a change. He is so often dismissed as a kitsch sentimentalist. I love him so much!

thanks for the tip about the book.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on May 30, 2008 5:24 PM

ricpic -- I'm not sure every painting needs to be impassioned. Just as Shakespeare's tragedies had bits of buffoonery to so as not to overload the audience emotionally, I think there's room for placid art.

Placid portraits that have held up well include Vermeer's girl with the pearl earring and the Mona Lisa (neither one of which I'm enthusiastic about, which shows what a dolt I can be).

In any case, I'm not all that fond of the first two paintings, but they were included to give readers a sense of what Aristides was showing her book's readers. The combo landscape/still life is more interesting, but I wouldn't buy it, had I the money. I do like the pinups.

Friederich -- Glad you liked linking to the artists. As for Collins, I greatly respect what he is trying to accomplish, but Carolina is the only "Wow!" painting I'm aware of.

If you get the chance, do thumb through Aristides' book. I'm too old to learn to paint using Academic techniques, but I like finding out how it's done. I prefer (and would dearly like to paint like, if I were any good) the work of Burt Silverman, Bernie Fuchs, etc. -- illustrators who went Fine Art. Some day I might figure out why I do.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 30, 2008 5:46 PM

Wow, the still lifes shown here are almost repulsive. They would be, but they're too lifeless to evoke such a reaction.

The portraits are yeoman-like. Yep, the artists have managed to render the human form in a recognizable manner. From what I see here, they'd get a B+ in art class.

Seriously, is this meant as a rebuke against modern art? Surely there are better examples of modern traditional painting.

Posted by: JV on May 30, 2008 6:36 PM

I recall this blog had pointed to Collins before. I think it's on your recommendation that i actually went to his retrospective uptown, in a gallery aimed at clientèle of Architectural Digest.

Overall impression: expertly executed dead flesh. Even the most carefully mixed warm body tones inexplicably evoke corpse flies.
A bit like Mapplethorpe's photos; pronounced hint of the perverse, but coming not from genuine perversity (that is always fascinating, not mentioning - honest) - but rather out of self-aware provocation.
The viewer feels, uncomfortably, the artist's stare, checking the reaction to the carefully posed black and white models.

I came home and happily opened Beardsley's album, for an antidote.

Tangentially off-topic: Donald, have you read Architecture of happiness, by Alain De Botton? I will be interested to hear your opinion.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 30, 2008 8:51 PM

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