Contemporary Realism: A New Twist on Tradition

By Pulkka, Wesley | Southwest Art, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Realism: A New Twist on Tradition


Pulkka, Wesley, Southwest Art


DESPITE ASSAULTS FROM MODERNISM AND ITS MYRIAD subsets, painting that relies on ordinary reality for its form and content is thriving. A growing number of talented artists are maintaining the timeless values of careful draftsmanship, painstaking detail, and skilful modeling that allow us to imagine that paint is an apple, an empty room, an ocean wave, a mountaintop, a woman or man. "The type of art that people relate to is always in direct response to what is going on in the world at any given time," says Klaudia Marr, director of Santa Fe's Van de Griff Gallery, which hosts an annual exhibit of contemporary realism. "In our age of uncertainty, realism offers us something familiar and tangible that brings order and good feelings into our sometimes chaotic lives. There is an edge to these works, whether it be an injection of mystery, cynicism, or hyped-up

idealism or a reveling in the mundane. Contemporary realists, however, are not content merely to replicate the world around them with astonishing accuracy. More often than not there is an edge to their works, whether it be an injection of mystery, cynicism, or hyped-up idealism or a reveling in the mundane. And the subjects of these paintings-bowler hats, pristine lawns, milk cartons, neon signs-tend to suggest a particular time in contemporary life, fondly nodding to the fifties or sardonically assessing our existence at the turn of the century. The intriguing aura of contemporary realism makes it one of today's most interesting genres, as evidenced by the works of the following nine painters.

Californian R. Kenton Nelson brings the American Dream to life. His brightly painted canvases brim with images of an orderly life spent in crisply groomed neighborhoods, what he describes as idealized views of his lifetime. In Nelson's vivid world, progress is gained through honest effort and anecdotes are told with storybook visual clarity.

"Contemporary realism is a response to abstraction, just as abstraction was a response to realism," says Nelson. "Because of its artistic hiatus, realism has become extraordinary: When you do see a good drawing or good painting, it startles you. In my case I'm more of an idealist than a realist. I'll take an existing structure and change it to perfect the composition." Nelson explains that today's realism is necessarily different from traditional realism, as artists synthesize the experiences of their own time and express them in their works. "It is this generation of artists making their statement," he says.

Realism has the advantage of being visually compelling, says Norman Lundin, an artist and professor at the University of Washington. Lundin is known for his paintings and drawings that celebrate the cool damp grays of winter and northwestern American light. "My feeling is that human beings like pictures of themselves or other things that they relate to-it's just our nature, Realism probably survives because unlike the avant-garde, which has no criteria for excellence, traditional art has criteria that are known and agreed upon," he says.

Lundin shares his psychological solitude with the viewer and turns ordinary moments into eloquent shrines dedicated to the quiet gravity of human life. "I find theatrical effects that avoid melodrama to be quite interesting. In my work I'm trying to develop and solve formal problems, anticipating that personal expression will take care of itself. So I use pretty straightforward formal reasoning to get it right," he says.

Artist Susan Bennerstrom, like Lundin, approaches her pristine paintings from a formalist perspective. Bennerstrom came to realism from an early interest in functional ceramics, weaving, and abstract painting. Since 1980 the Washington artist has worked in pastels and intaglio prints. She found early inspiration in works by Edward Hopper but is now studying Renaissance artists. "I'm crazy about ambiguity, where several things are suggested at once.

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