New Directions in Realism

Steven Levin, Sunday Paper [1998], oil, 20 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Steven Levin, Sunday Paper [1998], oil, 20 x 24.

We’ve heard the rumors about the death of realism and they are wildly exaggerated. As the 20th century dissolves into the 21st, representational art is alive and thriving in the western United States. From Santa Fe to San Francisco, from Dallas to Denver, painters are creating fresh visions in figurative, landscape, still life, western, and wildlife genres. On the following pages we present comments on key trends and a sampling of works by some of today’s young artists in each genre a window to the world that is unfolding in our terrain at the beginning of a new millennium.

Joseph Lorusso, Waiting [1996], oil, 16 x 20.,painting, southwest art.
Joseph Lorusso, Waiting [1996], oil, 16 x 20.

In figurative works, Steven Levin and Joseph Lorusso combine the techniques of the Old Masters with new elements to tell the stories of our lives today. Ray Roberts and John David Phillips turn to plein-air and tonalist painting to interpret the landscape. Still-life works by Jacob A. Pfeiffer and Jeffrey Ripple feature fresh takes on the age-old genre by blending a painterly approach with irony, humor, and mysterious narratives.

Finally, in western and wildlife paintings, Jason Rich and Luke Frazier continue the tradition of capturing our fascination with and nostalgia for the vanishing West.

John David Phillips, Alpine Spruce [1999], oil, 43 x  24.,painting, southwest art.
John David Phillips, Alpine Spruce [1999], oil, 43 x  24.

· The Figure ·
“The human figure has been the most constant and timeless subject of the world’s greatest artists,” says Tonya Turner Carroll of Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe, NM. “It is the subject that speaks to us and moves us the most because it is a reflection of ourselves.”

Seattle-based artist Norman Lundin agrees. “People are always going to be interested in the human figure,” says Lundin, who is also an art professor at the University of Washington. Though he admits that for a time figurative work lost some of its dominant status, Lundin notes a new sense that the figure is playing an important role in contemporary art. With this resurgence have come subtle changes in style and approach. “I think perhaps skill as a factor is coming back into the equation,” he says.

In figurative painting, old master techniques are experiencing a revival. Time and again the names John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Edgar Degas pop up in discussions of artists’ influences. “We’re seeing a resurgence of traditional styles like French Impressionism,” says Kent Whipple, co-owner and director of Meyer Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ. “There’s a simplistic elegance in all these painters today.”

Ray Roberts, La Jolla Cliffs [1999], oil, 12 x 16.,painting, southwest art.
Ray Roberts, La Jolla Cliffs [1999], oil, 12 x 16.

Yet figurative painters are putting their own spin on the tried and true. Prevalent in the work are different takes, different looks, and different explorations, Whipple says, all using a similar formula: a well-established style in a modern context. Lundin refers to this as a late-20th-century version of neoclassicism: artists are depicting modern imagery in a late-18th-century tradition. Steven Levin, a 35-year-old painter from Minneapolis, MN, has noticed this in his own work as well as that of fellow artists. “I’m seeing a lot more work that borrows from the figurative work of the past but is done in a new way, which is important,” he says. Levin and another artist, Kansas City-based Joseph Lorusso, are using fresh sensibilities to build on their traditional backgrounds.

Luke Frazier, Quick Stepper [1999], oil, 24 x 48.,painting, southwest art.
Luke Frazier, Quick Stepper [1999], oil, 24 x 48.

In Levin’s moody paintings you can see the technical beauty he so admires in the works of early Impressionists and artists of the Boston School of the 1930s. But there’s something undeniably current in his work an edge created by modern elements: a pair of beat-up hiking boots haphazardly lying at the foot of an unmade bed or a desk lamp casting a diffused glow on a man deep in thought. Levin has an attentive eye, rendering even the fringe along the border of a Persian rug. Yet his work has a loose quality, allowing room for the viewer to fill in detail.

Jason Rich, Bloomington Creek [1999], oil, 30 x 36.,painting, southwest art.
Jason Rich, Bloomington Creek [1999], oil, 30 x 36.

Lorusso achieves a similar classical look blended with a modern sensibility, which comes through in the deft sense of humanity present in his paintings. Whether brooding, daydreaming, or playing the saxophone, his subjects always seem steeped in life. You can almost hear them chant, “We, the living.” Viewing these intimate, silent moments often elicits a pang of recognition. The nappers, readers, musicians, and coffee drinkers you recognize yourself among them. Lorusso is telling the story of our lives.

Turner Carroll believes the popularity of figurative art can only continue to grow. Artists working in the genre are “trying very hard to draw more attention to figurative art,” she says. “For a long time conceptual art and minimalist art were so popular that figurative work didn’t really get attention. But people have tired of the alienation and isolation and cerebral quality of such art. They’re beginning to appreciate true skill, talent, and mastery of medium.”

· The Landscape ·
Landscape painting has been an integral part of western American art since the mid-19th century, when artists such as Karl Bodmer and Thomas Moran began recording sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and other striking features they encountered on surveying expeditions. Although their sense of awe at the grandeur of these landscapes comes through, to a large extent these artists played the roles of reporters—faithfully illustrating what they saw for the benefit of fellow Easterners back home.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, landscape painting had changed. Artists from the East Coast who migrated to New Mexico Ernest Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, John Marin, Raymond Jonson, and Georgia O’Keeffe, for example experimented with more modern approaches. They took greater liberties with color, form, and composition than any artists before them, and their work paved the way for the development of other diverse styles of landscape art.

More than half a century later, this diversity is still evident. And while traditional landscape painters who faithfully re-create the details of a scene still abound, many of today’s young artists are driven instead to interpret the landscape based on their personal experience. They often speak of capturing their feelings about the landscape not just the landscape itself on canvas. To accomplish this, many are turning to plein-air painting and tonalist painting. “Other categories of landscape painting don’t seem to have the same cultlike following that plein-air painting and tonalism have,” says Dallas gallery owner Anne Hughes. “There was a time when I felt that landscape painting was slipping, but with these styles taking off I feel it’s really strong again.” In a sense, both plein-air and tonalist painting are impressionistic in the most literal sense of the word: The artists’ goal in each case is to create a painting that represents their truest impressions of the landscape.

In fact, plein-air painting has strong roots in impressionism. According to Dr. Michael Zakian, curator at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art in Malibu, CA, members of the California Art Club many of whom are plein-air painters model their work on California Impressionism from the first several decades of the 20th century. “Even though the style is over a century old, plein-air painting still appears fresh because it is based on an individual’s active responses to living nature,” he writes in the catalog to a recent museum exhibition of Malibu landscapes painted by CAC members. One of the club’s younger members is Ray Roberts, a native of Santa Monica, CA, whose landscapes reflect his impressions of the California coast.

Plein-air painting is growing in popularity among young artists in other parts of the country as well. “Our local plein-air society is full and has a waiting list, and there’s a second group forming now,” says Hughes. “Plein-air painting is really hot right now because there’s just so much interest among young artists.”

There’s also a great deal of interest in tonalist painting. And while both plein-air and tonalist painters interpret the landscape based on their own individual responses, tonalists rarely paint on-location. They strive not to observe and record the setting sun, for example, but to respond to the emotions that the sunset inspires in them. In tonalist paintings even the most basic elements of composition may be obscured almost to abstraction, willingly sacrificed out of an overriding concern for conveying the mood of a scene.

The paintings of Colorado landscapist John David Phillips typify this approach. “John’s paintings have an isolated feel,” says Sandy Johnson of Merrill-Johnson Gallery in Denver, which represents Phillips’ work, “and he has a unique approach to lighting, composition, and perspective.” Says Phillips, “I’m drawn to boldly or unusually illuminated subjects because of their visual and emotional impact. If I can capture a sense of wonder and appreciation of the natural world, I’m happy with painting.”

· The Still Life ·
For centuries, artists and the public have been drawn to the lush fruits, flowers, and other examples of nature’s bounty that are depicted in the traditional still life. In the Baroque era, still life loomed large in Dutch and Flemish works by Jan van Eyck [1390-1441]. The Dutch masters celebrated nature’s abundance by using vivid colors against very dark backgrounds. More than 300 years later in France, Jean Chardin [1699-1779] was known for celebrating the beauty of everyday objects and edibles: cooking utensils, vases, fish, and the ubiquitous egg.

Then and now, the still life calls for combining various techniques of composition, texture, design, and light. But new elements in the centuries-old idiom have moved to the forefront, thus bestowing a fresh take on van Eyck and Chardin.

“Today’s still life can be playful, humorous, and ironic,” says Richard V. West, executive director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA. “There’s also a new sense of interest in shapes, colors, textures, and trompe l’oeil painting.” The Frye regularly shows works by still-life artists who are reinventing the age-old genre, such as Santa Fe artist Carol Mothner [swa nov 98].

Two young California artists, Jacob A. Pfeiffer from San Francisco and Jeffrey Ripple from Turlock, are also creating fresh visions of the still life. Borrowing from the old and new masters, they employ original narratives, social commentary, tension, ironic titles, metaphors, and unusual color palettes that reflect everyday life at the end of the 20th century.

Pfeiffer is a 25-year-old artist who graduated with honors in painting from the University of Wisconsin in 1996. He had his first one-man show at John Pence Gallery last July as part of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association’s annual focus on emerging artists. Pfeiffer’s works evoke tension, edginess, and a sense of humor. His titles amuse. In Before the Great Fall, an egg rests on the edge of a table. Is this a sly reference to Humpty Dumpty? Or as Pfeiffer points out, perhaps the piece is a metaphor for an impending stock-market crash. In Splice of Life Pfeiffer employs trompe l’oeil a technique harking back to the 19th century but currently enjoying a revival. Trompe l’oeil means to fool the eye in French. The artist creates the illusion of a three-dimensional surface. “I’m trying to create very accurate textures of the things rendered so that the glass feels like glass and the wood like wood,” Pfeiffer says.

In contrast to Pfeiffer’s spare and often more moody works, Ripple’s paintings boast a rich palette of colors. Ripple, 35, is influenced by both historic and contemporary Spanish masters, including Diego Velázquez [1599-1660] and especially Antonio Lopez Garcia, who is known as a magical realist. Similar to Spanish still-life works, Ripple’s paintings feature animated objects and a sensitivity and reverence for nature. Ripple’s paintings also invite the viewer into an underlying narrative, one that often evokes a ritualistic scene as in Still Life With Apricots. An empty bottle, scattered apricots, and a vase of bright red snapdragons why are these objects arranged this way? Has some ritual just occurred, or is it about to unfold? It’s up to the viewer, of course, to bring his or her own interpretation to the enigmatic tableau.

“I’m interested in how light moves through things like glass and reveals textures and colors,” Ripple says. “I like to take things that attract me in terms of color and form and really explore them. I search farmers’ markets for all the great colors and forms that I haven’t yet painted.” Ripple’s works are included in a group show of contemporary still lifes at Spanierman Gallery in New York, NY, from January 27 through March 4.

· The West ·
As our nation approached the end of the 19th century, the Old West was fast disappearing, compelling artists to paint poignant images lamenting its demise. In Frederic Remington’s The Fall of the Cowboy [1895], two cowboys on horseback approach a barbed-wire fence that crosses a snowy expanse—a somber reflection on the end of the open range. Likewise, Last of the Buffalo [1888] by Albert Bierstadt depicts what the artist once described as “the cruel slaughter of a noble animal now almost extinct.” The lone cowboy, unspoiled land, and free-roaming wildlife that had become icons of our national identity were vanishing, and the artistic style used to portray these images was a nostalgic realism accurate in detail but looking backward for inspiration.

One hundred years later, not much has changed. “The appeal of paintings and sculpture celebrating the romantic image of the West is as strong as ever,” says Bill Nebeker, president of the Cowboy Artists of America. Nebeker says realism is an important component of this appeal. “People can easily relate to realistic images,” he says, “and they relish the idea of connecting with the historic West, with the thought that their ancestors climbed into a wagon or mounted a horse and headed off to explore new frontiers.”

Legacy Gallery owner Jinger Richardson agrees. “Collectors buying western art are intrigued by the romanticism of the Old West,” she says. Richardson points to the historic market as an indicator of the genre’s popularity. “As we get further and further away from the Old West, the selling prices of works from the 1800s and early 1900s are skyrocketing.” One recent example is the sale of a 1902 oil by Remington at Christie’s this summer. The 27-by-40-inch painting went for an astonishing $5.2 million.

Bill Burford, whose Texas Art Gallery has specialized in western art for 35 years, chalks up such strong sales to a good economy. “We’re in an economy where 30-year-olds have the money to buy fine art,” he says. “Good paintings are selling, and a new generation is collecting.”

A new generation is also continuing the tradition of nostalgic realism, as evidenced by 28-year-old Utah artist Jason Rich, whom Burford calls “a very talented painter.” Rich grew up on a small ranch in Idaho where his family raised horses. His impressionistic paintings of Indian warriors crossing a stream on horseback or cowboys at work on the range evoke the romance and history of the West. Although best known for his western scenes, Rich has also gained acclaim for his wildlife paintings: Emerging, depicting a pair of deer in the forest, won the Grand Prize in the 1997 Arts for the Parks competition.

Wildlife painter Luke Frazier a former classmate of Rich’s at Utah State University says that western and wildlife art go hand in hand because they share the same origins. In the early part of this century, the allure of the West as a new frontier created a wide audience for artworks depicting the region. “People were compelled by images of animals they had never seen and country they had never experienced,” he says. Frazier, a passionate outdoorsman, brings scenes of animals in their natural habitat to today’s viewers. Still, Frazier sees truth in a comment made by renowned wildlife artist Carl Rungius [1869-1959]: “No one will paint [animals] as I have because no one will see them as I have.”

Bill Kerr, a founder of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, compares contemporary wildlife artists such as Frazier to those working at the end of the 19th century. “Today’s wildlife art is similar in that painters and sculptors are concerned about the diminution of species and habitats,” he says. “One hundred years ago people were worried about the loss of the bison; today it may be the Atlantic salmon.” In the mid-20th century, wildlife art was aimed at the commercialization of the outdoors, promoting fishing and hunting, says Kerr. “But we see less of that now and more art directed to crisis situations.”

The West continues to change, and realist artists continue recording its passing glories.

Featured in December 1999