Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 4

What We Are Painting


I have examined the content of 21st -century representational art to ask what the choice of subjects tells us about what artists think is important. I am disregarding questions of technique or style to look at the possibility of creating meaning in our fractured age. While the increasing popularity of fantasy and imagined worlds as subjects for representational art suggests they offer meaning to many, I have never saved any such image for future consideration, so these subjects are not discussed. The categories I propose are personal and have fluid boundaries–semi-permeable membranes, if you will. I recognize the hazard of writing as if the varied work of so many artists with such differing backgrounds was all of a piece. I have also taken advantage of the opportunity to quote many of the artists speaking about their purposes in their own words.

Dinner on Battlefield, 2015, Alex Kanevsky (b. 1963), courtesy of the artist

One choice we see is to recapitulate views of the past as represented by the new atelier movement. Jacob Collins has led the way these last twenty years, with the serial founding of ateliers largely based on the 19th-century French academy system. His students may spend an entire school year making cast drawings of ornaments. This approach can confuse technique for substance, mistaking how well we do something for why. Further, while atelier students may master the techniques of the 19th century, they lack its system for distribution of their work and, more importantly, its consensus of acceptable topics to paint. Consequently, this leads to still life paintings, with a particular concentration on those same plaster casts; landscapes that are essentially pastiches; nudes and portraits in the static poses required by the practice of working from the outline in; or figures shown in costume and poses such as appealed to those who were nostalgic for a simpler past more than 125 years ago. The Art Renewal Center list of approved ateliers has grown at a rapid pace, yet after admiring the technical mastery of most atelier work, I cannot find a strong case to make that the content is important. In the words of Michael Zakian, “What is added to the world with such technical skills, beyond technique?”John Currin also employs technique based on his understanding of old masters to paint pictures that he doesn’t want his own children to see, so I won’t show them either.1 His work has been described as “contemporary renditions of old master poses and formats that often conflate opposing sensibilities—vaulted taste with vulgarity, sentimentality with irony, and conventional beauty with banality.”2 Currin himself has said he chose pornography as a subject in part because of his fury that mainstream American publications refused to show the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005; the affair quickly escalated into an international diplomatic crisis.3 That the Muslim religion practices “aniconism,” the prohibition of figurative representation and, in particular, the figure of Mohammed, seems to have been less the issue for Currin than the threat to freedom of expression. “We have been hearing a lot of guilt about…the godless libertine West. I sort of imagined these as illustrations of that insecurity—the twilight of secular socialist democracy. It is important to me that I think of them as images of Europe,” Currin explained to an interviewer.4 Reacting to the demands of religious fundamentalism with pornography has made for an improbable, though entertaining, commentary on the choice of subject for representational art in the 21st century.

Studio XXXIII, 2013, Peri Schwartz (b. 1950). Courtesy of the artist and Gallery NAGA

Painters who rely on observation take deeper looks at their subjects, more typically still life, interior and landscape. Josephine Halvorson seems to examine the surface of her subjects at a microscopic level; Catherine Murphy, Susan Jane Walp, and Gillian Pederson Kraag represent intensely personal approaches to painting perceptually. Peri Schwartz brings a mathematical exactitude to the interior of her studio, using grid lines to focus her vision and to record the changes made in her compositions as she studies them.

Bridge over the Navarro, 2013, Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin (b. 1947), courtesy of the artist and LA Louver Gallery

Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin’s vision soars high above The Bridge over the Navarro, and her birds-eye view signals we are at least a century removed from the views of Corot, Courbet, and Cole. Still, in regard to her dedication to paying sustained attention, Rubin has described herself as in some ways “a creature of the past.”5 In our age of distraction, paintings that concentrate vision into purpose may offer more significance than just what meets the eye.

Such Wisdom in the agitated motions of the wind, 2015, France Jodoin (b. 1961), courtesy of the artist

The postmodernists speak of deconstructing surface reality, arguing that representations no longer represent anything–that they are a self-generating realm of images, an endless surface with no underlying reality. I am more than likely twisting their terminology to describe the work of painters such as Jenny Saville, Ann Gale, Alex Kanevsky and France Jodoin. These painters’ works can convey surface reality while presenting it fractured, falling apart. It may well be that our increasing reliance on video, and familiarity with the way it appears when its transmission is hampered, has accustomed us to understand fragmented images, to reconstruct a whole from parts in our minds with ease. Or, we may all share an underlying lack of ease or trust in things as they appear. Kanevsky rejects the question that the instability represented in his work is metaphorical: “Instability clearly exist. It’s a sign of life. A metaphor is a fanciful language construct that I don’t employ in my work. The painting language is very direct and clear, unlike spoken language, and, therefore, does not require the use of metaphor.”6 Since the variety of approaches to art itself reflects the richness of the world, we can acknowledge that other artists choose to use visual fragmentation or representations of instability as metaphor.

  1. Calvin Tomkins, “Lifting the Veil: Old Masters, pornography, and the work of John Currin,” The New Yorker, January 28, 2008.
  2. Getty Perspectives: James Cuno and John Currin, accessed December 1, 2015,
  3. Heiko Henkel, “Fundamentally Danish? The Muhammad Cartoon Crisis as Transitional Drama,” in Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, A Publication of OKCIR: The Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism and Science, VIII, 2, Fall 2010, accessed December 4, 2015, http://okcir/Articles%20VIII%202Henkel-FM.pdf
  4. David Usborne, “John Currin: The filth and the fury,” Independent,
  5. Leah Ollman, “Art review: Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin at L.A. Louver,” latimesblogs, May 27, 2011, accessed November 30, 2015,
  6. John Seed, “Alex Kanevsky: ‘Unstable Equilibrium ‘at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, The Huffington Post, October 7, 2015, accessed November 27, 2015,