Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What's real(ism)?

Still life with lemon, pear and red wine
12"×9", Oil on linen panel, October 2012
I've been recently thinking about the contemporary meaning of "realism" in painting; what do people mean when they label a painting as "realistic"? The contemporary meaning, because the term has been, maybe not quite perceptibly, changing its semantics: for instance, it doesn't seem to be widely know that the French impressionists tended to consider themselves realists (simply because they painted what was there, not replacing the perceptible, earthly reality with classical ideals required by "Academism"). Nowadays, "Impressionism" seems to stand in opposition to "realism", at least as an intermediate member of the triad, "Realism vs. Impressionism vs. Abstractionism". The "Academism", on the other hand, might seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth; but really, it's finding its sneaky way everywhere, from "Realism" to "Abstract Expressionism", even though often with other, not quite classical, sets of idealizations. 

This painting, which is, in a sense, as close to "realism" as I ever get in my own work, looks like an appropriate occasion to talk about one aspect of what is considered "realism": minimizing the perceptible distance, the space between what the viewer sees in the painting and what they think they would have seen "in reality". In other words, minimizing the surprise, the unexpected, the shock; conforming to the viewers' expectations and pre-existing conceptions of "reality", following certain established conventions of representation 3D objects on a picture plane. The paradox in this is that this distance is always there anyway; and the key question is how the painter exploits their ability to create a momentary illusion of its non-existence. 

(to be continued)
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