I love a lot of modern contemporary art and I have been influenced by many abstract expressionists. But I am a realist painter. But what makes my style a form of Contemporary realism? This essay attempts to lay out the skeleton of my aesthetic.
My fusion of high levels of realism, plein air method and renaissance glazing techniques have meant I am able to distil the environment onto the canvas is a manner where you feel you can walk into it. This makes my work quite unique in the world of landscape painting. But I also break a lot of rules laid down by establishment artists.
The results speak for themselves. My art provides a realism that is sharp, clean and modern. Something I like to refer to as Contemporary Realism. My painting give a modern feel to a room while still working with the antique furnishings and period pieces.
Let me break this down a bit for you.
It may seem strange to some but one of my greatest influences is the works of Jackson Pollock. Here in Australia we all know of the painting Blue Poles. Abstraction teaches us about surface and looking past the object into the rhythms of life.
Image rights© Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=36334
Pollack has been one of the biggest influences on my painting. Other than my love for his work, his work taught me how to paint leaf litter and random texture. Texture and surface are critical to realism. Rocks and leaves should not look like they have been arranged like an English country garden. The wild chaos of the Australian bush is hard to replicate. Cheat methods like using fan brushes rarely work. Even great painters like John Glover lined up rocks in the landscape with an attempt to paint order without observation. He did most of his final works in the studio – working from preparatory sketches.
Jacksons use of rhythm and repetition within what at first looks like random splashes has been very instructive.
Bush Road With Cootamundras 1977
oil on canvas97.0 x 107.0 cm
Fred Williams broke the rules for established landscape painting in Australia. I believe he was one of the first to understand the expanse of the Australian landscape and bush without resorting to Western design rules. Of course with the exception of traditional First Nations painting – represented in rock art , sand paintings and bark paintings of different long term custodians of this land. Dot painting post-dates Williams.
Williams introduces the extended horizon, aerial perspectives and non specific representation- they could be scenes of anywhere. They are bush, mallei, sand-dunes, forests – architypes of the familiar vision but without using the golden rule or other rules established in a foreign European manicured landscape developed by over a millennia art traditions. Bush Road above contains many different aspects of his body of work. The top third – his forest paintings; the bottom third his abstract plains, and the middle third containing his road wildly launches up a hill into space in distinct contradiction of the expected all roads lead to the focal point rule of traditional landscape painting.
I’m a realist but not a hyper realist. There is a big difference. Unfortunately in the art world there is a lot of prejudice against hyper realism. So my work is often misplaced into this category. I have as a result experienced this prejudice first hand.
I chose to illustrate this style with a Chuck Close painting from our National Gallery. If minimally to demonstrate it is a very valid painting style. Hyper/ photo/or super realism use the camera as a photographic source for the painting. The work is normally methodologically reproduced to get a super level of realism of image. Close painted this large work pixel by pixel enlarged onto the canvas as an inkjet printer would do today. Modern printers hadn’t been invented when he did this. It is such a faithful copy you can even tell the original image was created with a Hasselblad Camera as it has all the characteristics of the lenses Hasselblad used. Soft focus by a narrow focal plain and pore by pore detail in the skin.
Unlike the photo based paintings that make up this genre my work is produced only using my eyes on location. While it looks photographic it is not. It is summative seeing over many hours. I write a bit about this on my home page so I won’t reiterate this here. But I will say that my plein air approach combined with the use of renaissance layering where I add together ten very vigorous and none precise layers that together give the appearance of realism. If you get a chance get up close and personal with one of my paintings and your will get lost in the fluid impressions of the surface paint textures. Close up you could be looking at a Pollock or Fred but you won’t be looking at a Close. I will produce another blog on the links of my work to Rembrandt, Rubens and Gainsbourg. Contemporary realism is not hyper realism.
So what are the rules I break? These rules can be broken down into three distinct areas: Design, Placement, and Palette. A form of contemporary realism must break with the rules of the past.
Western art design is dominated by the golden rule, which is a mathematical construct popularised in the renaissance by greats such as Leonardo De Vinci. It has its foundation in the Fibonacci sequence in spirals. You can research it if you want to find out more. Possible the main way I break this is I place my trees, in the figure in landscape series right in the centre.
Perhaps the best place to observe the difference is in the work of Hans Heysen, the greatest tree painter in Australian landscape history. He places his trees up front but to the side. He generally paints the monster specimens, with the exception of his Saplings paintings. ( I consider his sapling paintings to be his finest work) He also includes animals and humans for scale. He successfully integrated the European design aesthetic and its romanticism into the Australian landscape. As a consequence realism in Australian landscape painting and photography has not broken free from these European rules.
For too long Australian Landscape painters have been shackled by this view of the landscape through Colonialism and Romantic eyes. There is a real need for a contemporary realism.
That is not to say there are not many great painters in Australia who loosed these shackles but they have generally been the abstractionists: Fred Williams, John Olsen, John Wolsley to name a few. But none of the realists.
There are other different design paradigms that operate. Japanese design is so different to the European model and I am exploring these in my photography at the moment. Then Chinese aesthetic is different again and as is Islamic – mogul and many other culture. We are beginning to see these influences in our significant landscape awards – like the Wynne prize and this is a great thing from our growing multicultural nation.
Yet the Australian landscape is different from any other continent on the planet. Just like our animals are different so are our plants and geography. It does require a different approach to seeing and expressing. This has been a passion and driver of my work for 50 years. I have been seeking to establish a Contemporary realism that is also true to the Australian landscape as we experience it.
My single trees all follow a predetermined structure that makes the series unique. Portraits of trees are treated like a portrait of a human. but even in western art the person is normally placed off centre. They also have a shear rock face of background behind them. Cutting out the panoramic landscape and making the portrait intermate.
My multiple tree paintings – Figures in Landscape take a low view as if sitting close to the trees (in the shade) looking through to the landscape.
The trees become sculptural figurative motives occupying the landscape – as if human, instead of humans. Our landscape is populated by trees, not humans. While the first nations people managed the landscape for over 40 thousand years through fire, the impact was not a European shaping due to the lack of fencing and different land ownership structures.
This close up placement where I focus on the roots to first leaves brings the viewer into the limited world of that tree, it’s environment and micro biome. It is an intimate view. As Bob Mathews notes in his critique –a sacred space. At the same time the structural rules I have established means I achieve a similar look over many different and diverse landscapes in Australia. The result is that many people who know my work will see trees differently. They will notice trees normally passed by and send me photos of ‘McKane trees’.
I am often asked how I choose my trees. I confess that I could paint just about any tree – it does not take me long to fall in love with one. But I look for sculptural presence. I care not if its a giant or a sapling – we are often prejudiced against the poor and insignificant in favour of the hero’s. (I will do a blog on this soon.)
But once I choose a tree and then choose a perspective, I change very little of what I see. (I am often tempted to do a painting of all sides of a tree.) In this sense I become more photographic in that I don’t edit out major features or manipulate the design. It is close to what you see is what you get. So I change position if I am not happy with design but once set the rest remains. My framing and placement then dictate view but the details work on a different basis to that of photorealism.
I learnt sometime ago visiting exhibitions of Rubens and Rembrandt that one does not need to paint all the details in a work. Concentrate on the main figure and allow the human eye to add the rest. So I don’t paint every leaf , fern or bush, there is culling fit for purpose. I doing so I am resolving focusing and bringing the subject into tension with its space. This increases the three dimensionality of my paintings where viewers feel they can step into the work or go behind the tree. Add to this the time lapse experienced by painting over many weeks and many hours this all leads to a very unique painting style and perspective in my painting of trees.
Palette – choice of colours – has been influenced by the Impressionists for much of the last century. In Australian painting there has been two schools when it comes to approach – the Australian Impressionists (typified by glorifying Arthur Streeton) and the Tonal Realists – known as the Meldrumite School. I am pleased to say both are horrified by my palette. While my pallet is more tonal than impressionist. I am more influenced by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Perhaps glaringly I use black. A major rule breaker in art society terms. More often lately I use a transparent black to make the tones. This will deserve a blog post of its own so keep an eye out.
For me the quality of light experienced in Australia is not impressionist – which centres around the golden hour just before the sun sets or as it rises. There is some research that shows impressionist colours were influenced by the air pollution from the coal fires of the industrial revolution in Europe of the time. The Australian light is very different to the light on other continents. This can be observed in the clarity of light achieved in Australian feature film making. That said neither is it the same from one region of Australian to another. I love the observation that Hans Heysen made on his first trip to Flinders Ranges – paraphrased- he said the air and light is so clear here I have to throw out my old palette (meaning impressionist palette) and start anew.
The same goes with Tasmanian light, it is so different. So my palette has changed recently. I guess the point is one size does not fit all neither does the choice of colours of an artists palette.
Post post modernism
At the end of the twentieth century there was a feeling that post Modernism everything was discovered or done that could be done in the Art world. This led to the rise of Post Modernism, which was an eclectic appropriation of all art in the past, part tongue in cheek, much plagiarism, and a massive dose of rewriting history through biased twentieth century paradigms. Back as it was happening I postulated to artist friends that there was another way to go. A synthesis of modernism, abstractionism and traditional artists like the renaissance painters. Instead of tongue in cheek mocking, a real learning from all Art movements. I also boldly claimed that there would be a resurgence of technical excellence as a part of this. The is a need for a contemporary realism that is not limited to the photographic.
Yes strangely there has been a rediscovery of excellence – although probably driven by social media that has re-popularised the wow factor. Something the dematerialised art objects lacked.
This synthesis has been a driving force behind my art and its development. Perhaps this is why I have labelled my work and this story – Contemporary Realism as a style that describes my painting. Crisp clear tones, not traditional, not abstract by synthesising the past and present.