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What is a painting? Technically it's an object that has paint on it. In the early part of the twentieth century modernist painters attempted to come to terms with that fact by increasingly flattening the illusionistic space within their paintings. The logical conclusion of these efforts was Minimalism - where the object becomes the art. When you have an all white canvas all that can be discussed is the support, how it's mounted to the wall, even the brushstrokes themselves take on this object like quality.
The realist painter can never think of a painting as an object. It is all about the illusion. The painting is a window where things are to be viewed that exist on the other side of the picture plane. What the painting is painted on, the thickness of the brushstrokes, these things are all secondary to the success or failure of the illusion. Has the artist convincingly placed the viewer in the world of the painting?
One of the problems that the modernist critic has in recognizing contemporary realism is that they are unable to see past the picture plane. They want to talk about the realist painting as an object. How is it made? Are the brushstrokes thick or thin? Was it made by a man or a woman, or a person of color? They have lost the ability to enter into the space of a painting. They lack imagination.
Although the illusion of reality is the ultimate goal, it is not achieved in the same way in all paintings. Besides the illusion of depth, all realist paintings have what can be thought of as the artist's atmosphere, the air between the picture plane and the thing depicted. In some paintings this air is very crisp; there is a stillness, a pin dropping would sound like a gunshot. In other paintings the air is very thick. The things depicted are in a state of flux. Molecules are whirling, light is bouncing, nothing is what it seems. Of course there are thousands of variations between these two extremes. That's what the modernist critics are missing when they take a realist painting at face value. To them it's an object denying it's an object; a modernist sin.
Some realist painters think that if they play the modernist game they will be accepted. Their work will be relevant. They believe that adding a non-objective, abstract expressionist like background, or making a painting that comments on current events is a way to appease the modernist critic. The modernist critic will never accept realism because they simply cannot see it. Their way of looking at paintings as objects first is opposed to an illusionistic way of seeing. The realist painter who flattens the space of their paintings to seem avante garde is, in effect, killing the illusion and creating an object. Objects can be decorative. The best realist paintings never are. The realist painter who paints topical subject matter in an attempt to seem current has turned their painting into a document. A document is an object.
One of the differences between looking at a photograph and looking at a painting is that photographs always draw attention to their inherent flatness, even when they depict vast space. This is why paintings that are done from photographs often have that compressed space look to them. The camera does not see things in the same way that a human eye does. The camera does not perceive.
One of the problems that the internet age has caused for realist painters is the huge amount of paintings that are being viewed in a photographic state. When a photograph or digital image of a painting is presented, it also will struggle with that problem of inherent flatness. One can see this effect creeping into the work of contemporary realists where paintings are being made to look internet ready and the "air" of the painting is not being considered because in a reproduction it does not exist.
As realist painters, it is important to hold onto the qualities that make our way of seeing the world unique. It is important to go to museums and galleries and see great paintings firsthand. Stand before a work of art and dive into the space of a painting. Breathe the air that the artist breathed. Feel the warmth of the light as it washes through the painting.
A realist painting is not an object first and a painting second because a great painting is transcendent. It doesn't matter what the subject matter of the painting is because, ultimately, the subject is the artist striving to present their truth of the world and their attempt to come to grips with things that cannot be put into words.