Given the emergence and then ubiquity of high-definition photography, one might wonder at the fate of realist painting. Does the ability to capture the real world in all its detail through photosensitive chemicals and digital readouts render the painter’s accuracy obsolete? With the Observation – Reference – Gesture exhibit up in the Willis Smith Gallery of Ringling College of Art and Design through much of the beginning of season the answer was a resounding “no.” Artists from around the world, from China to Sarasota, keep pushing the genre with everything from landscapes to portraits to objects as outwardly mundane as a paintbrush, each exquisitely rendered down to the finest hair. Three Sarasota artists discuss the challenge, process and discovery inherent in their quest for realism, and why it’s perhaps more abstract than typically thought.


The Architect Dustin Juengel

Why Realism? I start each painting with a destination in mind, so I know where I want to go and then I’m seeing if I get there.  It’s not as open to interpretation. I can look at two images—the painting and the photograph—and I at least have some kind of guide in deciding whether or not I’m achieving what I’m intending to achieve. I’m not swimming in the open ocean; I can at least see the coast and I know I’m swimming from this island to this island. On Realism as Illusion: It falls apart into the individual brushstrokes and you can almost see past it to the under-painting. That’s an effect of paint and how paint works. Anybody that paints realistically figures that out pretty fast—that if you make this kind of mark with paint on canvas and then take ten steps back, it reads like that. You get a feel for how paint reads and what kinds of effects you can create with paint, because even photorealism can’t really replicate either the pixels of a digital photograph or the grain of a silver print. You can’t manipulate the material on that molecular level, so it’s always an abstraction, but you can do certain things with the paint that create this effect from a distance. The work that I’m attracted to, you can have a second experience up close. On the Painting as Object: I do care about the physicality of it. It’s like a sculpture, so I do think about how I spread this paint material over the surface and what does it do so it’s still an intriguing experience. It creates different interesting spaces within the painting, different experiences—here’s the thick painting and then there’s this thin washy area and then bold strokes over here. It works like that—like stations that you experience—but then it also works for the overall effect of the painting.


The Idealist Bruce Marsh

Why Realism? There’s something about the process of observing and then trying to translate what you observe to paint on a flat surface that I find a continual challenge. It’s another way of thinking—a process of decoding the visual information—and always a challenge but also deeply satisfying when I make it work. It’s a tactic we engage hoping that something then emerges, that something creeps or crawls into the work that I could never put there consciously. I’ve never been interested in trying to express myself or record something about my identity or my history or my childhood, but rather taking this really sort of simple process of looking and responding. It also involves a lot of invention. On Landscapes: The landscape offers a huge range of information and surfaces and space. And so with each one there’s a different set of challenges that I find in the subject and that I focus my conscious attention on. It’s sort of like a vehicle. The painting is not about the landscape, but the landscape is a means for me to get involved in those issues that I’m really interested in. I am to some degree, an idealist, and particularly in the landscapes I’m choosing to build a very orderly world and a very harmonious world, a place that doesn’t have conflict or a place that is not chaotic. That’s almost, in a way, dissatisfaction with the chaos of everyday experience and wanting to build another kind of place that I’d rather be in. And that’s a reason for not including figures too—the idea that people always screw things up. On the Painting as Object: I’m interested in the idea that the painting has a strong illusion and strong presence. You’re very aware that it’s made with coarse little strokes of the brush, but from a distance, by their color and their location and their size, they make a gestalt—a whole image that’s very convincing, but not at all convincing like the hair-by-hair rendering of either a sharp-focused painting or photograph. And that’s important—the idea that it’s very obvious that the thing is made of blobs of paint, that it’s not pretending to be a photograph.

The Seeker Lucy Barber

Why Realism? I don’t think there is any difference in abstract work and realism, because it’s a translation of an artist in the world. I’m looking at the light, or the feeling of a place, an object, and I see things really abstractly. What I love most is “seeing”—observing the richness of what is right in front of me in the three-dimensional world, and discovering that the process of seeing is a nested one, much like those little wooden toys that as you open one a smaller one is inside, then another one, to the smallest. On Imagination: Imagination has to come into play. There is no way that we can absolutely copy something in front of us—we don’t have the capacity to perceive all the values and colors and we don’t have the tools and supplies, so we need to understand that we need to create a metaphor for what we are looking at. I need to have some kind of response to it, and that is the imagination part. On Abstraction: When you are working on something and you find yourself saying, “I can’t paint that tree,” you are stuck on an object and you are done for. You have to look at the lines and shapes and angles, the proportions and relationships, and that is all abstract. It’s best to detach yourself from whatever the subject really is. That’s why, for me, it’s really abstract. My senses reacting or responding to the visual cues and memory and imagination—along with the material—all come into play.