Reflections on Visiting A Bunch of Art Galleries

So this week, while James’s folks were in town, we visited galleries.

A LOT of galleries.

We scoured Scottsdale. We hit Sedona. We probably saw forty or fifty galleries in all, many of which were dreadful cowboy art schlockstops, some of which were really cool, and a good number of which were a combination. Overall, it was a good mix of things that were inspirational and things that made me feel better about myself.

But I noticed something.

Most of the art that I liked was not straight realism. In fact, I rather liked some straight abstracts, and the stuff that really appealled to me, what made me go “Man, I gotta try that/wish I’d thought of that/would buy that if I had a spare $10K” was the stuff that was representational but nowhere near photorealistic–loose, bright watercolors by Sarah Rogers, some meticulous surrealism by Daniel Merriam, stuff by artists names I’ve forgotten, but which were generally very expressive and representational without being anywhere near realism.

The realism tended to be divided into camps–the regrettable, the I-could-do-that (mostly wildlife art), endless and forgettable cowboy-and-Indian stuff, a few rare pieces that managed to combine sharp realism with a very unique style, and another few pieces of such skillful rendering that, while the style could’ve been pretty much any of the wildlife photo-realists (Brenders, Lyman, Seery-Lester et al) it was still beyond anything I could do at this point.

So generally the non-realism tromped the realism for interest–there were only a few really interesting realistic wildlife artists, and even some of those had just fallen into the generic-hyperrealist thing where it’s impressively rendered, but not that interesting beyond that. And there were a lot of dreadful wildlife artists, charging hundreds (and occasionally thousands) for canvases which, as much as I hate to make such an arrogant statement, I really could have done better (not as in “I could do better if I worked at it” but as in “I have done better, and it’s in the studio right now.”) Oh, well, que sera…

But anyway, at the end of the day, the non-realistic stuff was what carried the day for me. Even the best of the photorealists couldn’t hold a candle to the weird and delicate surrealism of Daniel Merriam or the Christensen prints I found in a corner of one gallery and rhapsodized over. Given the choice, I’d rather have some of the brighly colored, loose watercolors in the house than some of the meticulous realists. And this seemed weird to me, and that left me thinking.

All my artistic life, such as it is, I’ve been into realism. And I don’t really hold to the theory that realism is somehow immature and that you grow out of it, which is about as condescending as one could imagine, and doesn’t feel right to me–I grew out of the Vallejo-esque fantasy stuff, sure, but that was genre more than anything else, and good realism still has the power to wow me, the way that very little Golden-Age-Fantasy still does. But nevertheless, there I was…bored with a lot of the realism, including stuff that just a few years ago, I’d’a drooled over.

Hmm. Hmm, hmm, hmm.

Discarding the theory that I’m just outgrowing realism as I did horses, Wicca, and Mercedes Lackey (which arguably was just a sort of unholy synergy of the first two)–I move on to the second theory–namely that I’ve somehow clawed my way to halfway competent to judge realism, I’ve stared at a lot of it, I know a lot of the tricks, and I can spot cheap and uninspired from across the room, whereas with less representational fare, my palate is a lot less refined. (And indeed, my entire appreciation of purely abstract art can usually be summed up with “Ooo! Pretty colors/textures! Neat!”) So I could be looking at some dreadfully crappy semi-realism and just not be equipped to judge it correctly, like a Photoshop neophyte oohing over a lens flare.

And this is possible. I hope it’s not likely, but it’s certainly possible, and I’d never know. But, like the possibility that we’re all in a super-intelligent computer system, it almost doesn’t matter–there’s just not a lot I can do about it if true, short of waiting and seeing.

And then there’s the third theory–namely that now I know how it’s done, and can do it myself, I am Less Impressed. And this is probably the true one–I can do some okay realism. Sure, I could be a lot better–who couldn’t!–and there are plenty of realists who could take me to school and make me cry like an abused yak, but even where I’m fairly sure I couldn’t duplicate the level of skill on a piece any time in the next decade, I still know pretty much how it’s done.

I have maintained, with the passion of a missionary clinging to Revealed Truth, that you have to be able to do realism effectively before you can do non-realism. And I still believe this as strongly as ever–I did see some stuff in said galleries where it was obvious the foundation wasn’t there, and having done Yerf apps for several months now, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the line between deliberate distortion for creative effect and not knowing how to draw something correctly in the first place is a broad and busy ten-lane highway full of speeding 18-wheelers and the occasional rogue elephant. You can tell. People can cry about things being their style until the cows go to grad school, but if you don’t know your anatomy and lighting and rendering and everything else, it shows, and nobody but you (and possibly your mom) will be fooled by your protests that you’re just avant-garde. When you know how something’s done, it gets easy to spot people trying to fake it–you don’t have to be a world-class mechanic with a garage full of dismantled Ferraris to spot when a car has no tires and a spasmed chicken under the hood, or to be skeptical when someone is claiming that their unicycle can do zero-to-sixty in three and a half seconds. So I think my time spent studying realism has been valuable and I wouldn’t trade it for anything–if nothing else, that’s where the money comes from, and I can hardly draw “Digger” as a series of abstracted squares and Japanese kanji, with occasional tree root. (Well, I could, but I think readership would fall off dramatically…)

But I dunno. Maybe I’ve slaved over realism long enough to at least be able to dip a toe into weirder waters. Maybe it has nothing to do with that at all–maybe I just want to tackle an art form where I DON’T know how it’s done! (That’s what drove me to mucking about with sculptures, after all…the desire to try something with different hard bits.)

I suppose that’s a stupid amount of rambling when I should just shut up and paint SOMETHING–realism, surrealism, spasmed chicken, doesn’t matter, what comes out is what comes, and overthinking never helps anybody–if I want to paint something else, I should just paint it, and not talk about it!–but I was feeling speculative, and hey, first ramble of the new year, gotta do it sooner or later.

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