Fine Art Today: You define your style as "Contemporary Classicism," and I know that one of your main goals as a painter is to capture the human experience in a way that feels universal and timeless. I'd like to hear how you bring a contemporary or modern feel to your paintings while using a classical technique and allegorical subject matter, which can often have historical connotations or can remind viewers of art history.
Patricia Watwood: There are a few different things that I consciously do to try to make my work recognizably contemporary within the traditional lineage of figurative art. For one thing, I think that my sense of form, and the articulation of the body and especially the face, are not the type of form one sees in art historical works. Idealization and "femininity" both have had many visual interpretations --think "Rubenesque," or the love-to-hate Cabanal. These reflect a sense of form and presentation of the female body in a way that does not leave room for a strong female intellect or positive sexual power. We are not exactly "post-feminist," but women have much more self-possession, and I want my female figures to convey that. What is the female nude like after the Sexual Revolution? What if the artist gaze is a woman, not a man? The form is both more aesthetic (as in visual and detached) and more intellectual.
Second is the use of color and incorporating contemporary objects or scenery, like the urban landscapes and circuit boards. Since the Impressionists, the modern eye embraces a very full spectrum of saturation, both in art and in life around us. Using "modern" colors, and a modern palette with many hues and tints, the key and coloration of the artwork becomes noticeably different than the hues in the artwork of previous eras. I use mythology and allegory because of my interest in archetypes and universal narratives. I generally avoid saying "timeless," because I think that each era's idea of "timeless" is actually very temporal and can look anachronistic. I feel that if you are focusing on and trying to elicit feelings and emotions that are personal and directly experienced, then that has a magical way of transmitting over time -- and the message in a work of art can become timeless.
Patricia Watwood, "Sleeping Venus," 2013, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in.
FAT: Do you like or dislike the word "realism," and why? Your subject matter is certainly more imaginative and inventive, but wouldn't you consider your technique or style realistic?
PW: I avoid the word "realism," although in this field it is the most common catch-all descriptor for representational (and traditional) work. I have gotten away from using it partly because I am increasingly interested in subjects that come from the imagination, that are posed in unlikely and unrealistic settings. The aesthetics and philosophy of early 20th-century realists such as the Ashcan School rejected the need for narrative structure or outside (literary) images. Opposing that view, I am interested in a kind of triangulation between text/story, image, and viewer because this allows me to embed my point of view in a commonly known text or artwork.
I guess my style is "realistic" or "naturalistic," as I have always been drawn to carefully observed and naturalistically rendered forms. This doesn't stem from a desire to imitate the achievements of the academic artists. Rather, that style just feels to me like the best way to try to share my experience and affection for the world around me.
FAT: "Contemporary" by definition is anything that is happening in our current time, but when it comes to art, I tend to have slightly different parameters for defining that word. (For instance, by the dictionary definition, both Jacob Collins and Damien Hirst are contemporary artists. But if I were mentioning both those artists in the same paragraph, I would need to define their motivation, style, and subject matter in clearer, more descriptive terms and would likely not use "contemporary" for both artists.) What is your definition of "contemporary" as it applies to art in general, and to your art specifically?
PW: I really understand your comment, and I find myself in the same quandary. Simply, I define "contemporary" as in "concurrent with present life." Or "art made in context of said present life." So, even though my technique is classical, because my life experience and point of view are particular to my time, I use the term "contemporary." Furthermore, I want my work to be understood as particular to my time and experience. At first blush, many unfamiliar with classical representation may lump contemporary realist work in with a previous era, but my intention is that anyone looking more deeply into the work will see things that resonate with current life and experience. I think it's very important for us to have the experience of seeing ourselves -- human beings presented in art. It's an important validation and mode of reflection on experience and values. I actually think that most misconceptions that classical techniques are "old" are just prejudices toward closed and tight form, which started for clear reasons in the Impressionist to Abstract Expressionist eras, but are now just held on to as dogma. "Academic" continues to be a pejorative term, but most people would be hard-pressed to tell you why they are opposed to it.
In another 50 years, there will be another art term that follows "contemporary" and "modern" in the art lexicon. We don't know what it is yet. I think my primary reason for using the tag myself is that I'm trying to make the point that "contemporary" art does not just mean contemporary conceptual art, which is the default understanding. Also, I do wish to assert that although I am working in an "old- fashioned" (by some standards) mode, my hope is that the art is not a pastiche of an earlier era, but a new contribution in the genre. There is too much realism that is stale and calcified, and by using the word "contemporary," I hope to put some daylight between my work and more conservative work. I actually think that we are in the middle of this transitional period, and we will arrive at a place where there is a more fully articulated vocabulary in common usage for the worlds of art -- the traditional painting, and the conceptual. I think we are all trying to wear the same hat, and it doesn't fit.
Patricia Watwood, "Drawing for Sleeping Venus," 2012, graphite and gold watercolor on toned paper, 22 x 15 in.
FAT: Ever since your "Myths and Individuals" exhibition in 2010, you've been exploring more allegorical ideas, themes, and topics. Specifically, your "Pandora" painting from that show seems to have been a springboard for the current "Venus Apocalypse" exhibition. Can you talk about the inspiration and brainstorming that led to the conception of this show?
PW: I felt "Pandora" was successful and interesting because of how I was able to create a mythological subject and also incorporate contemporary issues, with specifically contemporary visual references and setting. The world around Pandora, while dystopian, is evocative of what I see outside my studio window, a specific "here and now" world that is also very personal to me. Pulling in September 11, and other contemporary issues like environmentalism, makes the subject personally related to current events.
I was reflecting that in the past 10 years in New York there have been quite a lot of stressful and catastrophic events: September 11, the 2003 blackout (and that summer of anthrax and duct tape), two wars, continuous terrorism, the Times Square bombing, then Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (and I would add the Newtown massacre). That's a lot of stress. So that dystopian world feels very near at hand. I thought that Venus would be a perfect subject to develop into a series, because of the contrast between the subject of beauty and the issues of environmentalism and cultural crisis. Venus rises out of the sea foam, fully formed -- but then one thinks, "What would that sea foam be like post-Sandy? Post-BP Gulf oil spill? Post-miles of dead zones and great Pacific garbage patch?" Well, I think she'd have something to say about all that. Venus represents a force of beauty and love, coming to address these enormous problems. I spent time around the beaches and shore communities after Sandy, took lots of photos for source materials, and gathered a lot of debris and shore detritus and brought it to the studio. I saw a dead swan, washed away and drowned in the storm, and was struck dumb by it. I thought, "God, I have to paint that."
The background of cityscape and the NY Harbor was another thematic visual that I used in "Pandora," and "Fallen Angel" as well. In part, it is simply to anchor the time and place of the paintings as specifically my world here in Brooklyn. I painted the Freedom Tower, under construction, as I can see it from the studio window. It's something of a pairing for the Pandora, which has the Two Towers. So the Manhattan skyline represents the city as pinnacle of commerce and capitalist enterprise. On the other side is Coney Island (where I take my kids), which just strikes me as this ironic symbolism of how we are amusing ourselves to death while our world crumbles around us. I've been using lots of birds as a symbol of spirit and energy, but here the seagulls are fighting over scraps of (perhaps poisonous?) food. They will likely long outlive us humans.
FAT: In at least four of the paintings in the exhibition, Venus (or an angel) is represented in repose -- either fallen, sleeping, or seemingly defeated. Can you talk about what ideas you were exploring in these more passive interpretations of Venus? Seeing these paintings after looking at "Venus Apocalypse," are we to infer that everything Venus represents -- beauty, fertility, love, prosperity -- is in danger or is perhaps dormant due to society's lack of reverence for her?
PW: Wendy Steiner wrote a great book, "Venus in Exile," about the banishment of beauty in 20th-century painting. In spite of its complicated relationship to feminism, I am singularly drawn to the image of female power and beauty, and feel that beauty's place in art has been rejected for too long. Beauty is a great rhetorical tool. It can move people and change minds, and inspire action and devotion. "Liberty leading the people" would not have been such a forceful, memorable, and motivating image if not for the great beauty of it. The beauty of the earth should inspire people to protect it, but humans are fatally anthropomorphic. I think that figurative painting can bring emotional clarity to issues that otherwise might seem less urgent.
The images of Venus sleeping and awakening are very much intended to be symbolic of the need to reconnect with beauty and love, or risk losing all that we cherish. Intentional ugliness in painting expresses ideas that are also an important part of human emotion and experience. But I don't believe that there is only beauty with a lower-case "b," which exists only in the eye of the beholder. Beauty and desire also have a place, a critical one for a culture that aspires to become more than it presently is capable of.
Patricia Watwood, "Fallen Angel," 2012, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.
FAT: One of the most striking and moving paintings for me in the exhibition is "Fallen Angel." I am especially moved by the tear that is falling from her eye even though she appears to be asleep or possibly deceased. Is she mourning her own fall from grace, or humanity's?
PW: I am a religious person, with a regular spiritual practice. I have been struck by how much artwork of the Old Masters is infused with a sense of spirituality, mysticism, grace, and faith. These were central philosophical points of view that shaped so much of their compositions and messages. In the 20th century, most artwork reflects secular and nihilistic philosophies in which God is dead, and we're on our own. This painting is about that loss of spirituality and faith in our culture. I thought of the angel as having fallen to the same landscape as others in the series, and the loss also refers to September 11, which was both a tragedy in human terms and a representation of the culture's loss of the illusion of security.
FAT: What was the most satisfying part of working on this series? What was the most challenging?
PW: The most satisfying part of the series is that in doing a series, I discovered how the viewer is able to interpret the imagery and ideas through the ways that the paintings "talk to one other," and how the messages become amplified by their relationships. I enjoyed figuring out how I could incorporate repeated imagery to make them connect with one another -- the birds, feathers, wires, or other details.
The hardest part was that I was frequently doing something that felt unfamiliar, and [something] that I'd never tried to paint before. The compositions are unlikely and full of strange objects, and I constantly had to give myself permission and encourage myself not to try to go back to safer territory. Being in unfamiliar territory also makes it hard to know what's "right" and "wrong," so there was less firm ground to stand on for artistic decisions. I had to trust my gut, and try not to second-guess myself.
FAT: Do you have a personal favorite painting in the exhibition? What is it about this work that satisfies you artistically?
PW: "Venus Apocalypse" has been the most satisfying, and feels like the biggest breakthrough. Tackling the classic standing female nude, and creating an image that is also fresh thematically, is something I am proud of. I had a lot of fun throwing together that swirly pink sky, and those flowing locks of hair. I enjoyed the energy of the image, and the gesture of the body.
FAT: Now that the "Venus Apocalypse" exhibition is complete, what do you think you'll work on next? Are there any more themes or ideas you are starting to explore?
PW: I've had a few multi-figure paintings in development, and I'd like to carve out some time to tackle some big paintings. I will probably continue to draw from the set of visual images I've started here, and continue to explore some of the metaphors. I have also been working with another artist, a photographer, on a collaboration that delves into more spiritual territory, so I would like to push farther into spirituality and even religious feelings.
Patricia Watwood, "Venus Awakes," 2011, oil on canvas, 38 x 34 in.
FAT: Last question, and this is meant to be challenging: Say, hypothetically, aliens with nothing other than visual ability (little to no reasoning skills) came to earth 500 years from now, and they were charged with looking at images of the art of our time and passing on their visual observations to those who were writing art history. Do you think the type of paintings you and your contemporaries are creating would instantly read as reflective of our time, or do you think you would have to explain why your style looks like something from the past but your subject matter and message are modern? Do you think modern art would read as reflective of the time, or would someone have to explain why there is little beauty or aesthetic appeal? Which do you think more accurately reflects our society's time and mindset? Popular, modern art that is inflated and promoted through specific investors' marketing strategies, or art done in the tradition of the past that the majority of the modern public ignores because it's seen as outdated and irrelevant?
PW: I think with such a distant and disinterested overview of current art practice, the aliens would likely conclude that realism in the early 21st century was an anomaly to the predominant art of the time. Taken as a whole, aliens would likely conclude that 21st-century humans were concerned with issues like multi-media experimentation, digital and electrical exploration and forms, and issues such as what is art, and who is it for? (A toilet, a shark, a performance, for political argument, for the rich man, for everyman, for no one, etc., etc.) Twentieth-century art of the mainstream is a reflection of the democratic capitalist culture, where capitalism is the standard by which all things are valued. Judging from the type of art, I suspect that they would be impressed with our technological advancement and scratch their little alien heads about what exactly artists like Jeff Koons were thinking. I have to assume that contemporary conceptual art, by virtue of its primacy, better expresses the predominant culture's values. Most young people I know are more interested in current contemporary art, and find realism boring. I think that modern (contemporary) art more accurately reflects our current values. We are still in the era of "Mad Men," and midtown Manhattan defines much of our culture.
Currently most traditional realist painters are like lute players. Charming and anachronistic. I think the aliens would need to be briefed on why such a group was working in this style, outside the mainstream. The aliens would get a lot of anthropological details about 21st-century life, because many realists paint modern settings and props. This would date the work accurately. I think that the art would be understood as part of human culture's need and tendency to look at and reflect themselves in their art -- just as we do in literature. I think it's a basic human activity, and in that way realist representation will always be a part of our culture. Realism has never ceased being practiced, and is found in galleries all over. Artists like Wyeth, Pearlstein, Close, and Freud have kept realist figuration visible. But unless you were seriously stubborn, there was very little to keep the brightest artistic minds over the past 75 years working in figuration and traditional practices.
I think that representation will continue to be present, and flourish in the next 25 to 75 years, and even "contemporary" 22nd-century artists will continue to practice classical painting, just like they continue to perform symphonies and operas. Will Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ever stop being relevant? I think there will be a healthy and energetic community of patrons and fans who support the work and follow it, though we need to do a much better job of developing that market and connoisseurship. I think the tree of art needs to develop more trunks and strong branches, and like music, should have fans in many genres. Because of the breakdown in traditional training in art schools and universities, realism has been eclipsed. Now, with an increasing number of quality schools and ateliers, there will be a broad enough community of talented realists to rejuvenate growth in composition and subject ideas, and better and more complex artwork. The next 20 years will be a very interesting time to watch this field develop.
Patricia Watwood's "Venus Apocalypse" solo exhibition opens at Dacia Gallery on June 5 (opening reception Thursday, June 6, from 6 to 9 p.m.) and closes July 7. For more information on Dacia Gallery, visit www.daciagallery.com. For more information on Watwood, visit www.patriciawatwood.com.
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