Looking for Art in All the Wrong Places.

Style vs Substance: There Needs to Be Much More Than What Meets the Eye

I’m a very analytical kind of guy. When I was a kid I always took things apart. I wanted to get to the bottom of how they worked, much to the chagrin of my parents. I’m just not content knowing something works, because only by understanding it can I truly own it.

When I began painting, my dissatisfaction with existing teaching modalities emanated from the fact that they seemed anchored in rote methodologies. In a given situation do this, do that, but never do the other. No explanation about why. (As I tell my students, “You can’t explain what you don’t understand.”) So I started looking at the paintings I was attracted to, and tried to figure out what it was that made them so compelling. The search for the common denominator! One strong commonality was a sense of sincerity, an clear connection between artist and subject. We’ve all had that experience of losing ourselves in a situation when we become enthralled. People appreciate the fact that an artist took the time to commemorate their fascination by making a picture of it.

The other night I attended a local theatre to see a series of one-act plays. I was invited by someone involved with the production. Two of the plays really stood out to me. One was actually quite good. The actor made the character he played believable. He transformed himself into another person. I didn’t feel as if I were watching a play, rather, I sat listening to this guy talk. The other performance was painfully difficult to view. The actor was so vested in creating a strong character he lost the point of the play. What was intended to be a dark comedy came across as pointless and confusing.

Afterwards I realized that the dichotomy between the two performances was equally applicable to painting. So many paintings seem to be about style and not about sincere communication. The art that’s most interesting to me is when the artist has something real to say. It doesn’t need a significant concept. It can be the smallest statement imaginable. In the parable of acting, it’s the difference between a performance by Meryl Streep versus one by Jack Nicholson. Jack is always Jack, while Meryl loses herself completely in her role, which makes for a more engaging experience.

I’m interested in artists whose works seek to convey something deeper, and not just the statement: see what I did and look how awesome I am. For that very reason I love the sensitivity of William McGregor Paxton, Ivan Kramskoy and William Bouguereau, and at the same time, I don’t feel much affinity for most of the works by artists I considerself-serving and superficial, like Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painting It’s about so much more than that.

For me, art becomes special because of a genuine connection between the painter and their subject. Particularly with regards to portrait artists, since that’s my oeuvre. I’m not saying that every single painting by Bouguereau and Paxton are great, and rarely misfire. On the other hand, Sargent and Eakins–who each did do some incredible paintings–did a lot of paintings I find less than appealing.

I don’t think it has to do with loose or tight paint application either. I see this epidemic of superficiality spanning all styles. Maybe it’s a function of living in a world that too often celebrates the superficial and materialistic aspects of life. Ironically Sargent and Eakins are more widely known.

I believe the way the art is taught is a huge contributing factor. Far too much painting today maintains an extremely strong imprint of the teacher or school. When I teach, I go out of my way to leave my inclinations out of the equation, my intention is facilitating the evolution of the student as a unique artist, not a clone of myself. I think it’s important to teach general principles and not specific rules or dogmatic points of view.

Stylistic predilections and contrivances not only limit self-expression they also poison one’s ability to appreciate work that falls outside the confines of imbedded belief system. Judging a painting by the way it looks reminds me of the Johnny Lee song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painted, it’s about so much more than that.

Until next time…