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In Defense Of

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“Untitled (Four Men With Table)” 2008, by Johannes Kahrs

Uh-oh.  Roberta Smith has an article on two photorealist painting exhibits in New York currently – Xiaoze Xie at the Charles Cowles Gallery, and Johannes Kahrs at Luhring Augustine.  She states two central ideas that I just do not agree with.  (1) The relatively high number of artists doing photorealist work in painting is reducing art for formula; (2) Part of an artists job is to do something never done before.

The only people who reiterate point (1) are people who can’t paint or draw in a photorealist style.  Such a statement marginalizes and trivializes the vast amount of observation, translation and dexterity necessary to complete such a painting.  It’s the word “formula” that implies such a painting can be done by anyone.  No training, or intelligence or knowledge necessary, just paint by the numbers and walla!  You too can be a photorealist painter!  A lot of people say things like this about photorealism (I’ve heard some people exclaim that “copying” photographs reduces the artist to the level of an ape).  No one who has ever painted from photographs or other such informational sources would ever say this statement.  To toss off such great work as “been there, done that” as Smith does, seems blunt (as in not sharp).

Which leads to her other preposition, that an artist must create something new.  Again, this is a tenant of Modern art which many people, especially in America, regard as a necessary pillar of “good art”.  But if so then I guess we’d better start chucking all of Jacques-Louis David’s amazing paintings from museums.  Every neo-movement should be removed from the history books.  Newness is only important to those seeking titillation in the arts.  Newness is often a cover-up for lack of craft.  Smith is correct that Gerhard Richter casts a great influence on most photorealist painters, particularly the two artists’ work being exhibited.  I might even agree that these works are derivative of Richter.  But derivation is not an automatic disqualifier, and it’s difficult to see how derivation trumps skill in these cases.  There’s no doubt about Richter’s influence, but the fact that Richter was first doesn’t make Xie’s and Kahrs’s paintings better or worse.  Being first or second has nothing to do with the quality of work displayed.  I’m not against the new.  It’s exciting when something seemingly fresh comes along.  But I reject this thought that novelty is a necessary component to the creation and/or recognition of great painting in art.

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"December 24, 2004. N.Y.T. (Casualties)," 2008, by Xiaoze Xie

This is not to criticize Smith personally.  I think my personal disagreement with this is prefaced on being a painter myself.  When I view paintings, I get up close to the works.  I analyze the techniques behind the creation of the works.  I try to get inside the artist’s head, so to speak, by viewing his or her decisions and use of materials.  Most people stand afar and take in the forest.  In an age of so many forms of media displaying “reality” in graphic form, a painting that seemingly repeats such imagery can get lost in the crowd if one doesn’t know first hand the enormous amount of effort needed to create one of those pieces.  A painting has a physicality reflected in the work that a photographic image does not produce.  I’m not quite sure how someone can pass such work off as boring, especially someone who professes to love the arts.

Written by Wes Freese

November 8, 2008 at 5:50 am

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