"Midwest Fantasy"; Watercolor & Gouache on Bristol Paper; 16x13"; 2014.
A friend asked how I feel when I look at this. I said: I feel conflicted about it. It makes me smile & frown. The Winchester rifle was used to kill a lot of Native Americans. The steer horn chair is a cattle baron’s throne; symbol of a wildly corrupt industry that cost many lives, including those of young women who wore silly outfits. Coyote’s a trickster; a deity who falls between good and evil. Then I think, I’m quite attracted to antique rifles, cheeseburgers and curvy women in catsuits.
The point of making art like this is to come to terms with my own conflicting desires.
Central Savings, Richard Estes, Oil on Canvas, 1975.
I used to disregard hyperrealism; paintings by the likes of Richard Estes, Chuck Close & Denis Peterson. I didn’t see the point in copying a photograph verbatim. I expected paint to look like paint; that the artist’s hand must be visible via bold brushstrokes that wear their imperfect handmade nature with pride. Now I think, “How abstract-expressionist (read macho) of me!” I recently viewed a Richard Estes exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art (Portland, Maine) and was delightfully put in my place. Two of the paintings are on loan from Kansas City, where I used to glance at them briefly, before dashing on to a Thiebaud or Rauschenberg. This time, however, I did not see copies of photographs, but reminders that reality is more abstract than we perceive. First of all, Estes does not copy photos verbatim. He often works from a panoramic series of pictures to create a single image with multiple focal points, thus expanding the perceived space. He intensifies certain colors to pull details into the foreground that would seem arbitrary in a photograph. The human eye, like the camera, only perceives two dimensions; essentially flat fields of color, arranged in various flat shapes. The brain then decodes data gathered by the eye, recognizing familiar combinations of colors and shapes as certain objects and deducing the unknown from previous experience. Estes completes the eye’s work with a camera. His photographs are 2-dimensional records of 3-dimensional space, perceived 2-dimensionally. His paintings are 2-dimensional as well, but offer more data than the photographs. Cameras, like eyes, are subject to focal points. This is a matter of survival for us. Seeing everything in one’s field of vision, in perfect focus, would be overwhelming and exhausting. By working from panoramic photo sketches and tweaking otherwise insignificant details, Estes gives us the opportunity to see everything in focus, at once. Reflections and shadows are no longer insignificant details, but rather hold the same prominence as the people and objects that cast them. No longer patches of color that lay on top of what one is looking at, but part of it. And what I find so delightful about this is the fact that it’s perfectly legitimate. In The Elements of Drawing (1857), John Ruskin reminds us that we are not born with the ability to deduce 3-dimensionality via our 2-dimensional lenses. Rather, experience is required for the mind to develop this skill that, by early childhood, becomes second-nature. By adulthood, we are so used to processing 2-dimensional data into 3-dimensional perception, while ignoring insignificant details, that the space we inhabit seems congruous. It is clear where one object ends and another begins. Otherwise it would be unnavigable. Picasso claimed to have spent his entire life relearning how to draw like a child. I believe that Estes’ work, though hardly similar to Picasso’s, performs a very similar task. To look at an Estes painting is to see like a child, to see without understanding the rules of vision.
Richard Estes’ Realism on display at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine until September 7, 2014.
Central Savings property of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
'Poop-eyed Cowboy'; Acrylic on Panel; 11x11x1.5”; 2014.
'Soilent Green is Cowboys'; Acrylic on Panel; 11x11x1.5”; 2014.
'Fiebre del Vaquero'; Acrylic on Panel; 11x11x1.5”; 2014.
'Wall-eyed Crooner'; Pen on Bristol Paper; 6.75x11”; 2013.
First serious attempt at draping a dress on a form.