Arts Magazine: The Academic Dialogue

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

The Academic Dialogue: Academic realists look to the ideas and techniques of the past to depict the objective world

Recently, a contemporary environmental artist began his lecture at the Walker Art Center by hurling mud at a landscape painting. Defacing it with the nature which it mimics, he punished the painting for its mimicry. To a group of painters known as academic realists, this gesture symbolizes the dichotomy between modern-day conceptual artistic attitudes and the realistic traditions of earlier centuries.

"The Academic Dialogue," an exhibition that opens in the Minnesota Gallery on December 21, 1990 highlights the work of 15 Minnesota artists who, using the styles of earlier masters, search for a form of visual representation that is unaffected by contemporary notions of space and abstraction.

Linked philosophically to the French and Italian academic traditions, academic realism involves a systematic approach to the depiction of the objective world. Academic realists seek technical virtuosity through disciplined training in an art school or atelier, where they learn composition, theory of line and color, canvas preparation skills and such techniques as glazing, scumbling and varnishing.

They learn how to methodically create an image with the use of calipers, sight-sizing and other measuring devices. Using linear perspective, they effect a two-dimensional rendering that recedes into the background towards a vanishing point. Often the subject matter is nature or the human figure, rendered with objective accuracy.

At the turn of the century, the academic tradition was challenged by other attitudes and artistic representation and fell into relative obscurity. Today's academic realists paint portraits, still lifes, genre scenes and fantasy paintings. They search for the solidity and slower pace of the pre-Cubist world.

In Interior Nude, 1990, by Lisa Bormann, a woman grooms her hair on a bed, her back to the viewer. The painting's soft blues and warm reds create a tranquil effect. The diagonal pattern of the bed cover's stripes and the vertical folds of the drapes focus on the woman's curvaceous form. Bormann allows the viewer into an intimate setting by pushing the bed forward through the picture plane.

Beautiful color and line-primary goals of this movement-are used by Jerry Rudquist to unify subject and object. In the self-portrait, Descriptive Study/The Artist, 1989, he explores the form of his face using a painterly style. The hand of he artist is evident in the strokes of green, red and ochre that define the portrait.

Like a 17th-century Dutch still life, Stephen Gjertson's painting April Bouquets, 1987, combines forms and color with the fragrances, tastes and tactile qualities of the objects it depicts to create a full sensory experience. However, Gjertson's flowers are placed within a vessel painted with similar flowers, which is more of a play on abstract imagery than would occur in the art of the 17th century.

Mike Lynch's Duck, 1984, depicts a duck decoy that rests on a stepladder. Using subtle shades of gray and green, Lynch creates a soft and glowing still life. The artist's composition suggests the dichotomy between nature and culture. The decoy, itself an image of a real duck, is transformed into an object we admire for its form by the ladder, which functions in the painting as a pedestal.

In his Wagnerian-scale triptych Day of Wrath, 1990, Richard Lack symbolizes world destruction with a Post-Modern pastiche of German romanticism, Christian, Egyptian and classical mythology. According to Lack, the symbols of a male shadow and female dragon imply destruction by fire. The left panel of the triptych depicts the revelation of St. John, which according to Lack, hints at apocalypse.

Today, paintings can not offend because photography now conveys visual reality. The critic Robert Hughes recently argued in the New Republic that Mapplethorpe photos offend for that reason.

Nevertheless, academic realists look to a world that respects nature as it is. They revere the human form, perhaps hoping that humans may be perfectible. As a movement, it searches for a world more paced by the human heartbeat.

Jim Billings is a critic and art appraiser based in the Twin Cities.

There will be a special opening reception, free and open to the public, for "The Academic Dialogue" on Thursday, December 20 from 7 until 9 P.M.

The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) is directed by a revolving panel of seven artists, elected for two-year terms by and from Minnesota's artist community. The Artist Panel is responsible for selecting exhibitions and directing the overall policy of the program. The Panel selects exhibitions in one of three ways: by accepting a proposal submitted by an artist or a group of artist; by curating a group exhibition; or by assigning a guest curator to organize an exhibition.

"The Academic Dialogue" was curated by artist panel member Tim Iverson. Mr. Iverson has served on the panel in 1989 and in 1990.

Citation: Jim Billings, "The Academic Dialogue: Academic realists look to the ideas and techniques of the past to depict the objective world,"Arts 13, no. 12 (December 1990): 8-9.

Related Images

Artist Lisa Bormann in Interior Nude, 1990 uses warm colors to create a tranquil scene.

Jerry Rudquist's painterly style is evident in Descriptive Study/The Artist,1989. Strokes of green, red and ochre define the portrait.

Day of Wrath, 1990 (detail, above) by Richard Lack is a massive triptych that borrows symbolism from diverse sources, including Jungian psychology, and Christian, Egyptian and classical mythology.

Duck,1989 by Mike Lynch is a beautifully rendered composition that suggests the dichotomy between nature and culture. The decoy serves to fool or seduce that which it mimics. The decoy is transformed into an object we admire for its form by another utilitarian object, a stepladder.

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