Masters of Art

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Photo of Drifter by Studio Drift 

“First thing’s first, I’m the realist,” proclaim the lyrics of white girl rapper Iggy Azalea’s 2014 hit jingle “Fancy.”

This Top 20 pop-song, mixed with a few coats of a Pavarotti rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” blend to create a synesthetic reaction to standing in front of almost any Renaissance masterpiece, whether in the Uffizi, The Met, The Frick or The Louvre.

The better-than-a-photo beauty of every minuscule, horse-hair brush stroke. The holier than thou subject matter: portraits of either God himself or an oligarch most self-evidently “richer than God.” The values: both in the color sense and in the dollars and cents sense.

From Basel to Miami, for the past 150 years, the art market has engaged in an accelerating arms race of abstraction.

The apotheosis of this evolution to the farthest ends of abstraction arguably took place at this year’s Armory Art Fair in New York City with PACE Gallery’s Drifter installation by Studio Drift: a “floating cement block” a.k.a. a piece of gray, spray painted Styrofoam filled with purposefully leaking helium to create an optical illusion that the “cement block” is spinning and floating with neither physical tethering nor tethering to any clearly articulated philosophical message. It begs the question, “What’s next?”

With the advent of popular traveling exhibitions like Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” and the rising name recognition of other Old-Master’s-inspired, contemporary artists like Richard Phillips (that Lindsey Lohan portrait) and Dan Witz (making mosh pits beautiful), the art world could be facing a post-contemporary, New Renaissance.

“A New Republic” is currently on display at The Oklahoma City Museum of Art and is wrapping up a buzzy national tour sponsored by The Brooklyn Museum. Wiley’s work is overtly rooted in the tedious and skilled technique of bygone artists like Jan Van Eyck and Titian. His contemporary voice and political passion resonates through the subversion of the subject matter portrayed in Renaissance styling: American people of color in lieu of European (mostly white) aristocrats.

The message is conveyed with complexity in terms of its artistic talent and detail and, in contemporary art interpretation terms, the social statement is readily tangible. Perhaps this accessibility is part of what’s lead to the ubiquity of his work at many major art gatherings of late.

A fun, mental game to be played across the aisles of Frieze and Basel, in recent memory, is “Count the Kehinde Wiley’s” or “Count the Alex Katz’.” Both of their photorealistic works can be found within many of the convention-style gallery booths. 

In a world where 1 rough, graffiti skull painting by Basquiat goes at Sotheby’s auction for $110 million (in contrast to a Christie’s auction titled “Renaissance” where 33 Old Masters’ works sold for a mere rounded-total of $42 million), more literal or photo-representative works provide a stark contrast to the rest of the current selection: Stacks of paintings and prints that to the untrained eye may appear to be a collection of my-three-year-old-could-do-that-scribbles and I-don’t-get-it-drips.

The rise of abstraction as a technique found in most contemporary art is entirely understandable, playing a crucial role in the fostering of innovation and thought throughout communities for the past several decades.

To understand how the current contemporary art market came to rip a Lucio-Fontana-sized-gash right through the Old Masters’ scene, abridge the narrative starting with The Renaissance:

“Art” (as in museum-worthy-Masterpiece-“fancy”-wall-hangings) started out with artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci making paintings that reflected (as close as humanly possible with a paintbrush) the world around them or the worlds of religion as visualized through the world in front of them (Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, etc.). “Masters” gained their titles by virtue of a technical command and ability to faithfully render what they saw onto canvas or into a sculpture. 

From there, innovation in art takes the form of hidden, public messages embedded in breath takingly executed orgy scenes like Bronzino’s Cupid and Venus or Botticelli’s botanical mystery, Primavera, but the goal remained tied to the technique of figurative realism— straight forward, high resolution paintings valued and admired for their lifelike detail.

Fast forward through the following two centuries of creative innovation and watch the gaining emphasis on subverting the technique itself: With pointillist brushstrokes, the impressionists’ inaugural Salon in 1874 ushered in a new era. Then DuChamp abandoned the canvas altogether and displayed a urinal to expand on the very notion of art. Picasso took portraiture to a new level with colors and cubist renderings and Mondrian dispensed entirely with figurative lines and embraced geometry and color.

From these points onward, modern and contemporary art keep pushing the envelope to further and further separate the meaning of a piece of art from the literal, visual representation of that idea or subject. Artists like Gerhard Richter, who was trained to paint in the photo realist school, begin to toy with the idea of blurring an image to extent that his most famous (and valuable) works appear to be nothing more than a dual chrome canvas titled as a “portrait” of someone. Perception and subversion of reality become the main plays, leaving behind the identifiable portrait or still life as passé. 

Much of what defines art though, whether Michelangelo, Motherwell or Marina Abramovic, is the interplay between expression of thought and abstraction of image.

Rather than pushing the boundaries of abstract technique, some artists, like Kehinde Wiley, are now returning to the Old Masters’ form, but with radically different subject matters and meanings.

So perhaps “The New Republic” is a prescient title to dub an exhibition of art like Wiley’s.

Within the present political era, maybe respite and hope are found in art within an approaching new epoch marked by the blending of the best of skilled, artistic technique with the best of abstract, social commentary.

StoriesLaura Perese