By Virginia Campbell
Coastal Morning, oil, 11 x 14, by Jesse Powell
When conservative English historian Paul Johnson’s book Art: A New History came out a few years ago, Johnson, a singular and undeniably brilliant mind, pronounced a number of modern art icons not what they were cracked up to be—Picasso included—which proved troubling even to critics habitually inclined to give Johnson a good listen. But the most remarked-upon surprise in Johnson’s thoughtful analysis was the entire chapter he devoted to what he considered the egregiously overlooked importance of Russian painting. Johnson went so far as to say that one particular painting by 19th-century artist Ilya Repin was possibly the greatest work of its era. The era in question is the one in which Manet, Monet, Renoir, and company held forth. Plenty of gifted representational painters in the United States were probably not so astonished to hear this: The fall of the Soviet Union has made the work of Repin, Isaak Levitan, and many other Russian painters more visible to American eyes, and hundreds if not thousands of American painters have seen in these paintings a command of traditional painting skills that amounts to a treasure trove of inspiring information and strategy.
Jesse Powell is a young California-born, California-based, and California-inspired painter whose own encounter with representational Russian painting forever changed the way he sees and paints the California landscape. Having just turned 30, Powell has hit the kind of stride in his work that artists hope for the way farmers pray for rain.
The specific point at which his motivation, determination, and faith in the power of art were brought into alignment was a period in 2000 during which he studied briefly in Moscow and then for a longer stretch at the King Erekle School of the Arts in the Republic of Georgia, where the accomplishments of the 19th century have been taught with a commitment to traditionalism that is at odds with most of Europe and America.
“The Russians are so academically proficient,” says Powell. “Before they develop their own voice, they have all the elements they need to paint. The cultural experience of being in a foreign country away from my comfort zone was important to me, but what was more important was their emphasis on painting directly from life, focusing on one element, and looking carefully at the circumstances and the world around you. There’s guts to the way they see the world and the way they teach.”
Powell can deliver this entire statement about his Russian revelation in less than 15 seconds. He talks a lot faster than most people who talk for a living, and much faster than the vast majority of people who paint for a living. That speed seems all of a piece with an overall energy level that sought its purpose throughout college, and did, in fact, find it without realizing it, and then came to finally recognize his true aesthetic home while traveling abroad…
Featured in September 2007
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