Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Empire of Flatness

A question often posed to artists who paint the human figure from life:

"Why don't you just take a photograph?"

The relationship between photography and painting has become a complicated and interesting one as Hyperrealists execute impressive technical feats through software-assisted "human laser-printer" activities worthy of an android. Digital imaging technology provides an unlimited range of settings for the figure, liberating artists from the confines of what is possible in studio setups.

Yet, in spite of all the technology that money can buy for art star Photorealists like Damien Loeb, figure painting based on photography often reads as emotionally shallow, lacking the organic harmony and psychological center of interest necessary for that elusive feeling of "life energy" in an image. Photo-based figure painting is often executed in a manner that is airbrushy, uniformly resolved, undifferentiated, flat.

Contemporary Photorealists employ a process somewhere in between photography, digital graphic design and painting. The totality of the visual experience has been converted into an abstraction by the machine which the artist then re-interprets and enhances, working in a place several steps removed from the orginal visual experience.

The prevalence of photo-based figurative painting has created a new Empire of Flatness in the contemporary art world. "Exploring the flatness of the picture plane" was a mantra of mid-20th century modernists, but this recent plague of flatness seems to be an unintentional by-product of a painting process that is derivative of the two-dimensional low-resolution digital image.

Most accomplished figurative artists who work from life develop the uncanny ability to immediately identify a figurative image that was based on a photograph, even when looking at an image of the artwork in a catalog or brochure. The figure often has the feeling of a "paper cut-out" which has been pasted onto the background. Digital images exaggerate reflected lights, and flatten form against the background. Gallerist Laura Grenning, for example, has elevated this ability into a virtual mind-reading parlor trick, which I've seen her deploy to expose the working methods of aspiring figurative realists with nary a 10-second glance at their portfolios.

So, then, what exactly is the "secret sauce" of life drawing that gives it the organic and emotional energy lacking in photo-based figure painting?

Life drawing entails the gradual creation of an image slowly over time, through the accumulation of thousands of marks which are related to each other through a process of intentional artistic decisions. The gradual accumulation of marks over time, creating a cast or mold of thousands of movements of the artist's body, results in an image with these features:

  • Psychological Focus. We see with the mind, and our attention focuses on visual elements that convey emotion. In life drawing this center of interest will naturally emerge as some areas of the painting are resolved while other areas remain loosely indicated. The camera, however, does not differentiate between an expressive mouth and an earlobe. Everything within its focus is resolved and given equal attention. There is no psychologically-driven hierarchy of interest.

  • Organic Harmony. With each mark, the artist builds the image by establishing relationships between the parts and the whole. In classical figure drawing, this happens through a deductive process, as relationships between large shapes are established before the smaller component shapes are drawn. Connections are found between gestural lines that run "though" the form. This process is destroyed by tracing an image that has been projected onto a canvas and then traced.

  • Gesture. A sense of motion is conveyed in life drawing through the accumulated selection of thousands of tiny moments that are layered together, as the artist patiently waits for the model to settle into a particular position or for the light to catch a form in a certain way. Line and edge quality leaves indeterminate borders between the form and the space around it, creating a sense of energetic movement.

And now for an exception. Many artists who have been extensively trained in life drawing methods are able to overcome the limitations of the photo-derived image and imbue their subject with the life force that the camera normally sucks out. A contemporary example would be Alyssa Monks who uses color temperature and a Venetian glazing process (along the lines of a red imprimatura -- terra verte grisaille -- dead palette first pass -- modeling with glazes and heavy scumbling) to turn form and compensate for the flattening cut-out effect of photography. In her other paintings, Monks has used screens and veils (water, shower curtains) to break up the image and scatter edges into blurred geometries, avoiding the pitfalls of stiff photo-based drawing by virtue of her choice of subject matter.

"Penance", 2006, by Alyssa Monks, oil on canvas, 54 x 72

Digital photography liberates the figurative artist in terms of subject matter, but paintings based on the digital image consistently fall short of expressing the undeniable life force that is visible in this painting by Jacob Collins. His work "Anna," painted from life, powerfully illustrates the advantages of working from an authentic, original visual experience:

"Anna", 2004, by Jacob Collins, 36 x48 inches oil on canvas

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