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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 11, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Real and Surreal Art

Taste in art is so personal; who can judge another person's judgment?

And yet it's hard to think of an area of human endeavor where there is more contempt for other people's preferences. Think of how people refer to "Elvis on velvet" or "dogs playing poker." I remember when "wide-eyed moppets" were all the vogue; and who doesn't feel utter contempt for the little naked winged babies that adorned walls and ceilings, suggesting "love" (or pedophilia; but we won't think of that).

Yet the art that supposedly represents the highest achievements in recent years have been, to my eye, rarely better than "pleasing" or "interesting," and usually ugly, meaningless ... contemptible.

Isn't it odd that when we look at dogs playing poker, we are all supposed to be revolted; but when we look at spatterings of paint on canvas, we are supposed to admire them extravagantly -- as long as Jackson Pollock did the spattering.

It's amazing how much ink has been spent discussing artworks that clearly will not survive their brief period of vogue; it is hard to imagine art historians a century from now looking at Pollock or Warhol or Mondrian as anything more than symptoms of the decline of a civilization.

Yet each new fashion in art represents, step by step, the natural progression of shifting values. The problem is that when a community becomes completely committed to its own superiority, it becomes incapable of real perspective.

Yes, Pollock and Warhol and Mondrian all represent one version or another of the need to transcend, reject, or build upon the perceived achievements of the previous generation.

But they were not the only artists working in their time. There were plenty of plein air realists; in fact, nearly every other art tradition was still alive, including iconographic, academic, and little winged cupids.

The reason so many of you instantly know what I'm referring to when I invoke the names of Pollock, Warhol, and Mondrian is that the Community of Superior Taste (CST) anointed them as Important Artists (IA).

The result was that in art schools all over the world, many impressionable young talents quite naturally assumed that this was what it meant to be an artist. So they tried to do Pollock, Warhol, and Mondrian ... only more so.

Or they tried to anticipate the Next Big Thing (NBT) by being even more outrageous, offensive, creative, innovative ...

But underlying all these fads and vogues was an entirely unrelated value system: The desperate need for the CST to prove itself superior to regular people.

Those silly Academic artists created paintings that pleased ordinary people. Down with that! What the CST needs is art that nobody else likes. Thus, quite apart from whatever actual value the work of the IAs might have, it offers this one: By talking about them, the CST proves their superiority and exclusivity.

I do not discount the possibility that there really are people whose eyes were hungry for the work of Pollock, Warhol, or Mondrian. I know for a fact that there are people who really like the Impressionists more than the Academics. There are people who love Picasso (and, if we're speaking of some of his early works, like "Mother and Child," I'm one of them).

In fact, I'm far from believing that all art has to be beautiful or pleasing or About Something (and even those ideas are hard to define). There is certainly room in the world for people whose visual needs are met by paint-spatters and tomato soup cans and disproportionate, dull-palette, incomprehensible arrangements of shapes.

Where I draw the line is "art" whose sole purpose for existence is offending other people. Especially when these "artists" never choose targets that are actually dangerous. They always attack absolutely safe targets -- people whom all their friends despise, and who are powerless to fight back.

That is why, even though there is room for many kinds of art in the world, I have nothing but contempt for art whose primary purpose is to hurt, offend, or exclude.

Yet that is only a small portion of the world of art -- rather the way social bullies make up only a small portion of the high school population, yet attract most of the attention (and are called "popular," even though everybody hates them).

Thus we find that the same people who, in high dudgeon, defend abominably offensive art, sneer at completely inoffensive work that regular people enjoy.

Here's what we often forget. There really are standards. There are techniques of art that are powerful, when done properly, and merely sad, when the artist hasn't mastered them. The works that the CST sneers at most often take a level of skill and accomplishment that is beyond the reach of many of the IA they tout.

I have heard many people say the semi-apologetic, semi-defiant statement, "I don't know about art, but I know what I like." To these people I always say, "You know as much about art as you need to, and whatever you like, you like for reasons as good as anybody else's."

I have loved studying and learning about art. It opens doors, so that works that I didn't value become valuable -- rather like learning a foreign language. And inevitably, the more you experience and learn about art, the more dissatisfied you become with poorly designed and executed specimens.

You become jaded. A naked winged pink-cheeked cherub may be singularly well-executed, but you never notice because the subject matter is boring; you've seen too many cherubs.

It's not that you have superior taste, you merely have experienced taste.

It's the way young kids can read Tarzan or Anne of Green Gables without realizing how impenetrably thick the writing is. They simply haven't read enough to realize that prose can be much, much better than this. And since young readers usually parse the language more slowly, in smaller chunks, they aren't slowed down by the clunkiness of the prose.

You don't realize quite how bumpy the road is when you are only driving five miles an hour. But once you get up to sixty-five, bumps you didn't notice make you feel like you're driving on railroad ties.

That's how it is with art. At first, you see the subject matter and respond, not to the technique of the artist, but to your feelings about the thing depicted. But the more art you see, the more dissatisfied you become with poor technique and poor design.

It only becomes an affliction when you begin to take pride in how superior your taste is, and use your knowledge to claim "inside" status. You become like sports fans who way overidentify with "their" team or a particular player or driver, or music fans who scream over a band or a performer.

You want to give them a tiny shake and say, It's just a game. Just a race. Just a song. And even if they really are as good as you think, you didn't achieve anything by noticing and appreciating them. There's no reason for you to take pride in someone else's work.

It's great to share it with other people. If they like it, great. If they don't care, it doesn't mean you're better than them, it just means they don't care about something that you do care about. It's only a bad thing when you start feeling superior to them.

Obviously, this is the point where I need to start telling you about the art I love. And then you'll either not care at all, or go to the websites I'm about to point out and really enjoy the art, or go look at the art and sneer, "So that's the trash that Card likes."

If you don't care, we're fine. If you enjoy it, then aren't you glad I told you about it? And if you despise it and look down on me, then you've just played into my hand, because I have already proven myself superior to all the people who feel superior to other people because of their taste in art.

I win.

OK, all infinitely-recursive irony aside, let me steer you to some artists that satisfy some of the things I search for in art.

Let's start with a return to the Art Renewal Center. This is an organization that began by celebrating academic artists like Bouguereau and grew to be a center for encouraging representational art.

I have ordered canvases and prints from the Art Renewal Center, and the quality has generally been high. But I must confess I don't come to ARC for the old masters -- I come for the new artists they discover.

They run an annual contest that gets some amazing submissions; the winners blow me away. Even though there's a definite art ideology involved, the artists are self-selected -- if they don't love the kind of art that ARC sponsors, they wouldn't have submitted entries to the contest.

You'll see what I mean when you go to the ARC site.

Some of the artists I already knew from their work as illustrators: Notably Howard Lyon, Don Maitz, and Donato Giancola.

Just as composers who want to create beautiful, powerful, intelligible music have been forced to work on film scores, because the CST music establishment only rewards unlistenable noise, so also many artists who want to create new works using traditional techniques have no choice but to work in illustration, since there is not going to be any grant money or institutional commissions for them.

I'm always amused when "serious artists" look down on illustrators. Especially since I've known few "serious artists" who weren't happy to accept commissions. Everybody likes to get paid; if an artist can find a steady income from publishers for the kind of work he loves to do, who cares if the work is "illustration"?

The contest winners are wonderful, but I got even more pleasure from searching down the list of Finalists to see some wonderful works that almost won. This website is like a collection of the finest work being done today.

In the Figurative Finalists category, here are some of my favorites: Favorites of mine include Katherine Stone ("Lucie and the Wind"), Hans Guerin ("Mother Earth"), Richard Scott ("The Sophist"), Aron Wiesenfeld ("Winter Cabin"), Mikel Olazabel ("Andromeda in the Cliff"), Angel Ramiro Sanchez ("I want to be at your side"), Gregory Mortenson ("Platinum"), David Bowers ("Family Tree"), Ron Cheek ("Woman with a Burden"), Joshua Langstaff (The Young Architect"), and Niki Covington ("Help Thou Mine Unbelief").

You just have to go see what I mean. (But please remember with all the sites I refer to, representational art often includes the human figure, unclothed. It's not pornographic, but they are definitely naked, to one degree or another, and sometimes quite candidly so. Therefore, if that annoys you, then you probably want to stop clicking after ARC, and don't resume till you get to the Russian academy site.)

One category of contemporary art that is every bit as creative as -- and, in my view, far more interesting than -- the work of most of the IAs is surrealism. Surrealists are generally expected to master all the techniques of realism, but then apply them to depictions of people and things that could never exist.

The images can be thrilling, but some can also be so disturbing that, as with horror movie teasers, they leave me with a determination never to look at them again. It makes the study of contemporary surrealism a rather dangerous pastime. But let me point out some that I have found well worth the risk.

Years ago I found a book of paintings by Odd Nerdrum -- as compelling and scary a surrealist as you're going to find. Few artists are in his league, but for years one artist has moved me, and won my admiration, even more than Nerdrum, and that is John Jude Palencar.

Palencar's website by no means shows all his work, but I urge you to look at "Insomnia Sleeper" and perhaps his most Nerdrum-like painting, "A Ghost in the Hills." Meanwhile, the appalling "Terror in the Year AD 1000" is full of images that, like a train wreck, I can't stop looking at.

Aleksander Balos is best known for a series of warm-toned human figures in various aspects of community life and struggle. One thing is clear, even in the midst of depictions of real suffering: Balos loves people and is filled with compassion for them:

Roberto Ferri's work is just as warm, but far crueler. There are images here that haunt me, but also some real beauty in the midst of terror and pain. Ferri makes no attempt to fig-leaf his nudes, so if that bothers you, stay away. I carry several of his images as wallpaper on my Android phone and my Nexus. I literally cannot get enough.

David Ligare's work is bright and beautiful, yet conceptually rich and rewarding. Simple pieces of cloth being carried on the wind bring new perspectives to the old tradition of draping in art, but he is as illuminating when he paints landscapes, herbs, and still lifes.

When you go to Spanish surrealist Alex Alemany's site, click on "galeria." Some of his work has a too-pretty feel to it, but there is much excellent surrealism. My favorite is "Entorno privado," a shadowbox with a human in one jar, a storm in another, and bowl of water with waves crashing.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging of these artists is Stanislav Plutenko, a Russian who seems determined never to allow himself to get in a rut. Click on the year, and you'll see the great variety of his work, from contemporary social satire to magic realism, from humor to fantastical arabesque.

But another Russian, Peter Gric, offers the opposite: a consistent, strange vision of a future that is both beautiful and terrifying. Human figures are most frequent when they are deeply involved in stone and concrete. His Russian website is http://petergric.ru; to see English-language titles, go to http://www.gric.at/home.htm . The Russian site is organized by year.

He also has a book, Peter Gric: Paintings from the First Decade of the New Millennium, which you can order from his site (but not from Amazon). I look at image after image and want to write stories that explain and fulfil his visions.

Let me close with a couple of collectives where many artists come together to offer glimpses of their work. The surrealist site "Beinart International Surreal Art Collective" is somewhat perilous. While there is some absolutely brilliant, illuminating work, the quality is not even, and some of the images are unbearably disturbing.

Moving away from surrealism now, the Academy of Arts Foundation in St. Petersburg, Russia, has created an absolutely gorgeous gallery of the works of three dozen artists. All of them are at least interesting and fall well within the realistic/surrealist continuum.

Look especially at the work of Julia Bekhova, Oleg Dosortsev, and Igor Samsonov. All three of them show the influence of Russian Orthodox religious icons, but in wildly different ways.

I hope you actually go to these sites and look at these works. It's as close as I can come to piling you into my car and taking you to a whole bunch of galleries, where I'll point inarticulately and say, Isn't that so cool? Don't you love that?

Only you get to look at the art without me actually watching you look at it -- isn't that better?

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