Editor’s Letter | Beyond Realism


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of serving as a judge for the inaugural Nómadas del Arte show held at Sage Creek Gallery in Santa Fe. The show’s title essentially means “art nomads” and refers to the fact that all of the 200 participating artists—some established, others emerging—painted en plein air in six southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and/or Utah) throughout 2007 to create their show entries. That added up to nearly 400 small works, which were hung from floor to ceiling on virtually every wall in the gallery. That’s a lot of landscapes! The subject matter ran the gamut, from mountains to deserts and creeks to canyons.

The styles of painting, however, were less diverse: The majority of the works were realistic or impressionistic renderings of the scenes the artists were observing. Which is the goal of plein-air painting, after all: to faithfully capture the outdoors on location, especially the shifting, natural light. But I found that the most memorable paintings—the ones that I could still picture in my mind after I’d evaluated all 400—were the ones that had gone one step beyond representation, beyond recording a beautiful scene, to make a statement by exaggerating some element or other. And in that decision to play up a particular aspect, the artist had made the landscape his or her own by singling out what meant the most to them. In one painting it was an unbelievably blue sky in the background that drew attention to the contrasting craggy tree branches in the foreground. In another case it was the extremely soft edges in a pastel that played up the dreamy, peaceful quality of the pastoral scene. It takes a great deal of artistic skill and experience to know just what to emphasize, and just how far to push a painting beyond realism.

The artists featured in this month’s special focus on modern and contemporary art push the boundaries further than most. Sometimes that means they’ve chosen unusual or unrealistic subject matter, like Deborah Van Auten’s human figures floating through space. Sometimes it means that they’ve eliminated virtually all the details, as in the minimalist works of cover artist Melissa Chandon. Jean Richardson goes even further, abstracting her subjects until they are barely visible; what remains is a pure expression of color, motion, and energy. Whatever degree of realism or abstraction you happen to favor, you’ll find art most rewarding when it conveys the artist’s own insight about their subject. -May 2008