Within 7 days in April, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, then the OKCMOA to catch the tail end of their Photorealism exhibition. In a week immersed in art and landscapes, I also read Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, a theoretical exploration of colour and form. Kandinsky and Dow’s “Composition” were major influences on Georgia O’Keeffe’s compositions and abstractions, along with the use of photography thanks to Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand.
These two exhibitions cemented some loosely held ideas and beliefs I have been carrying around for some time. Clearly, the photorealists shared with O’Keeffe an affinity for the use of the photograph as a launching point for their art – both as a way to abstract and understand their compositions. In some cases, the Photorealists went further, mechanically transferred their compositions to canvas. Photography brings to painting a curiousness and precision – a lens of sorts on modern life through the expansion or stripping of detail that the medium makes available.
It got me to thinking about how I create my own art and my own feelings about the use of the camera.
The use of photography and mechanical means remains controversial in the art world and I have to wonder why in an era of post-modern appropriation**. If you can use someone else’s composition and simply assign it another meaning and call it yours, I am inclined to wonder why this even makes it on to the ethical radar. The post-modern affinity with copyright infringement is far more worrisome and stands to have a far more detrimental impact on the future of art than the concern over an artist’s use of their own photography in their own paintings. But that’s another topic….
My sketchbook, per se, has been the camera for most of my artistic career. I tried carrying around a sketchbook making drawings and notations in the field. For many reasons over the last several years, painting in the field is undesirable to me and eventually my sketchbook became merely a place for notations and perspective corrections of photographs (if that is even desirable and I am finding it less so). Many of the derelict building locations were not places to linger, never mind paint or sketch and I rarely had the luxury of time. I sometimes required repeated trips to a location, if possible, to get the right images. When I get into the studio, I take the structure of the photo and sometimes alter the light and often alter the colour in order to achieve on canvas how I see a place.
I love my camera. I have been known to walk into things using the camera as my eye, changing my view. I started with the camera years before taking up the brush, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise. For a long time I have downplayed this and now I am beginning to have second thoughts about being reticent in discussing my use of photography in my art and how that reticence encourages the disparagement of the use of photography in art in general.
Like anything else, it is not the tool, it is what you do with it. The camera can bring the viewer in, distort and create interest in a way that is not as easily done just sitting before a subject. It can narrow or broaden a composition, detail or abstract it. I have mostly done scale drawings of my carefully composed photographs and then transferred those to canvas. More recently, I have started using a projector to avoid worrying about scale, but I can’t afford a projector that is good enough for much more than line drawings, so going fully mechanical is not in my near future. At the moment, that is a good thing and in the next post, I’ll explain why.
Abstraction and the 20th century movement toward the deconstruction of art has made photorealism possible because if you really look, these paintings are often more abstract up close than realistic. The theories of abstraction aren’t new. Abstract composition and the camera have played a significant role in the development of renaissance and academic painting. Learning how to see is what’s key and if the camera helps to do that, then all the power to the artist.
There are pitfalls, however… Next post!
* Here is a fantastic write up on the OKCMOA show and Photorealism
** (UPDATED) This is a good article with some astounding comments on the topic of appropriation and fair use using the the appeal of the Prince vs. Cariou case as an example. Click here to read the article.