December 2006

Slow Painting?

by Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi


Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance
Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, Atlanta
September 17 - December 17, 2006

Since we have not seen Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance, we can comment only on what we have gleaned of it from the catalogue and online images. A fairly ambitious group show comprising more than forty paintings and drawings (of varying quality and interest) by a score of realist artists working in a traditional vein, it is surely worthy of note. The show was curated by Gregory Hedberg, Director of European Art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City, and the painter D. Jeffrey Mims, founder and director of Mims Studios. Among the outstanding painters represented are Paul Brown (Speed Bags), Charles Cecil (Portrait of Zoe, which we were fortunate to see in person last year at Ann Long Fine Art, in Charleston), Jacob Collins (Salt Marsh, Sunset, and Attributes of the Arts--see the review of his recent solo exhibition, as well as "Muddying the Waters of Classical Realism"), Adrian Gottlieb (Abandoned Passion, a still life), Mims (Self Portrait and Study for Allegory, both pictured on his website [scroll down], and Nurture of Jupiter), and Patricia Watwood (Flora Crowned--the exhibition's striking poster painting--and her earlier Flora). For a selection of other images, see the sidebar on the exhibition's web page.

Paintings such as these make the exhibition worth visiting and the catalogue worth perusing. Regarding the exhibition's theme, however--as expressed in the ill-considered title and in the inadequate explication offered in the manifesto and essays published in the catalogue[1]--we have substantial reservations. Apart from an informative account provided by Hedberg of the burgeoning of traditional art ateliers and academies in recent decades ("A New Direction in Art Education"), and some astute remarks by Mims in "Distinguishing the Essential from the Accidental" (including tributes to Kenyon Cox and Ives Gammell), the catalogue text does little to advance the cause of realist painting. The exhibition title does even less.

In a brief introductory essay entitled "The New Renaissance," the Oglethorpe Museum's director, Lloyd Nick, expresses the hope that the Slow Painting exhibition will be "the first of many to usher in the newest renaissance [in painting]." But the current revival of traditional painting was in fact ushered in more than two decades ago by an exhibition that bore the inspired title Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century. (Organized by the painter-teacher Richard Lack and others, it opened on November 17, 1982, at the Springville [Utah] Museum of Art and traveled to the Amarillo Art Center in Texas and, finally, to the Maryhill [Washington] Museum of Fine Art,[2] where it closed on May 15, 1983.) In contrast to the terms Slow Painting and Slow Art, both employed in connection with the present exhibition, "Classical Realism" has the virtue of indicating defining attributes of the work in question (see Stephen Gjerston's "Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition"), thereby differentiating it from other contemporary realist styles, as well as from such pseudo art as photorealism, Pop Art, and the work of prominent contemporary realist painters such as David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, and Chuck Close.

Hedberg offers an articulate argument for "Slow Art," but we would counter that the term can be applied to any style of painting and to the work of anyone calling himself an artist. The abstract painter Brice Marden (whose retrospective is currently at the Museum of Modern Art), for example, has characterized his work as "very slow painting." Chuck Close has been said to be "[n]otoriously slow at producing paintings." According to an article in the quarterly journal Logos, "a line of exploratory abstract painting investigating abstraction in the expressive tradition of the School of New York . . . could be referred to as the 'Slow Painting Movement.'" In another instance, a writer recalls that he "once attended an abstract painting show at P. S. 1 in Queens that was shamelessly titled Slow Painting," and he reports: "I thought of all this when I saw Richard Tsao's recent work at Gina Fiore's salon in March. Tsao makes some of the slowest paintings I have ever seen."

Finally, consider the following statement:

The decision made by the artists to employ painstakingly slow, time-consuming, even obsessive, techniques to produce something unique and handmade suggests that they regard art and art-making as a means of resisting instantaneous access made possible by new technology, a way of slowing the pace that has been accelerated by hitting "fast forward." These artists have opted for "pause," affirming that deliberation and contemplation remain things of value when it comes to making and looking at art.

No, this is not from the catalogue for Slow Painting: A Deliberate Renaissance. It is from the curator's statement for Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, an exhibition of work by five purported artists who often "reproduce paintings . . . from photographic reproductions."

Nick claims that the "new renaissance" betokened by painters such as those in the present exhibition "was born as a reaction to the super-technological age, against the 'beauty of speed' and out of a deliberate desire and need for slow art." He is far wide of the mark. The revival of traditional realist painting has little or nothing to do with our "super-technological age." It was born instead out of the same fundamental impulses that inspired the realist painting of the not-so technological Renaissance and the nineteenth century--the desire to embody certain humanistic, and often religious, values.

The final document in the Slow Painting catalogue is especially problematic. Clumsily entitled "Deliberte! Slow* Art: A Manifesto, A Movement for a Century" (with this note of explanation appended: "*Slow: adj. to proceed without speed"), it was drafted two years ago and appears to have provided the impetus for the exhibition. Only seven of the painters represented in the exhibition are included among the nineteen signers, however--among them, Collins[3] and Watwood, who are cited above. The signers of the manifesto naively envision that "the art of the future will be as powerful, relevant, imaginative and as skillfully made as any art of the past" (including, presumably, that of Ingres, Raphael, Velázquez, and Turner--all of whom are noted as exemplars--not to mention Leonardo and Rembrandt, among others). Perhaps. But not in any of their lifetimes.

Astonishingly, this manifesto advocating traditional realism in painting seems to imply, regarding the old standards, that Abstract Expressionism can legitimately be viewed as one of the historic peaks of art, along with the Renaissance and the Baroque. (Lamentably, Abstract Expressionism is also cited or alluded to in a positive light in three of the four essays in the catalogue--those by Nick, Hedberg, and James F. Cooper, editor and publisher of American Arts Quarterly.) Further, the manifesto proclaims that its signers refuse "to denigrate other forms of artistic expression"--presumably including Abstract Expressionism or any form of abstract painting, for that matter. Instead, they aim to "create new artistic standards hitherto unimagined"--a lofty-sounding yet vague goal that seems to imply that their standards will somehow transcend those of the Old Masters.

Hedberg appears to have in mind "other forms of artistic expression" when he lauds "the type of art coming out of the older and now venerable 'new medium' art schools such as [that at] the University of California in Los Angeles." Founded in 1920, UCLA's department of art may be old, but it can hardly be characterized as "venerable" if one understands that term to mean "deserving of honor and respect." The list of those who have taught there includes some of the most notorious avant-gardists of the twentieth century. Among the current faculty are professors of "new genres" (new media) such as performance art, installation art, video art, and digital art, and "emerging art forms" (now, there's a blank check!).

In Hedberg's view, "appreciation of one kind of art does not exclude appreciation of the other":

While many of my generation still feel there is a battle being fought between modernism and post-modernism, the majority of artists under 40 working in either artistic camp do not sense this conflict. Readily open to both kinds of expression, they make art not war.

The crucial battle is not between modernism (i.e., "abstract art") and postmodernism, however. It is between them, on one hand, and true art, on the other. The nonjudgmental open-mindedness expressed throughout the Slow Painting catalogue is wrong-headed and counterproductive in our estimation, for it sidesteps the fundamental issue of what qualifies as a "form of artistic expression"--as art, in other words. Until that question is properly resolved, no renaissance in the visual arts is likely to gain even a foothold in the culture.

1. The complete Slow Painting catalogue is available online as a full-color .pdf document. Though not cited anywhere on the Oglethorpe Museum website, copies of the catalogue may also be ordered from the Museum Gift Shop, we are told, for $15 plus $3.95 shipping (Georgia residents, add the appropriate sales tax). Call or write first to verify information and availability before ordering.

2. The Maryhill Museum of Art's permanent collections include American Classical Realist paintings by R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack, among others. To our knowledge, Maryhill is the only museum thus far to collect such work under that designation.

3. To his credit, Collins has since voiced reservations about the manifesto: "The reason I don't like the slow art label is that we do have a real phenomenon on our hands. . . . We have something real, yet we are packaging it and pitching it like we're making up another twentieth century modernist movement." (Quoted by James Panero in "The New Old School,' The New Criterion, September 2006.) We applaud him for having had the good sense to change his mind and the courage to say so, and we wonder if any others have had similar misgivings.