The Representational Art Conference, a California Lutheran University Arts Initiative event organized by Michael Pearce, is a yearly international event focused on forward-looking representational art in the 21st century. This year’s TRAC—held between March 31st through April 4th, 2019—took place at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Ventura Beach, California, gathering a large number of attendees hailing from North America and as far away as Europe, South America, Asia, and Oceania.
Artists, writers, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, scientists, curators, and other creative minds gathered to exchange ideas, present papers, attend lectures, hold demonstrations, participate in panel discussions, socialize, forge friendships and alliances, and exchange ideas on all sorts of art-related subjects. This year’s topic was Imagination and 21st-Century Representational Art. While TRAC provides an exciting platform for debate, it does not seek to establish a single monolithic aesthetic for representational art but instead tries to identify commonalities in an effort to understand the unique potentials of representational art, ideally shedding some light on possible future directions.
My experience at TRAC2018 held in the Netherlands last year—read my article HERE—was so enriching that it impelled me to attend again. This year’s conference far exceeded my expectations in both substance and overall vibe, and especially the keynote speakers—Michael Pearce, Tim Jenison, Corinna Wagner, Joseph Bravo, and Roger Dean—stood out for their riveting presentations. For anyone who mostly works in isolation and whose social interactions with other creatives usually limits itself to social media, spending time among fellow artists and thinkers is incredibly nourishing and energizing. Especially when the topics at hand are so interesting, challenging, and crucial.
There were many moments I wanted to physically split myself to be able to be at different locations simultaneously because choosing between concurrent presentations was incredibly hard as absolutely all topics fascinated me. TRAC2019’s fastmoving program also included an excursion to visit three exhibitions and a chalk festival, a delightful break from the abundance of thought-provoking lectures that left my mind pulsating with a wealth of information, ideas, and thinking points that will continue to percolate for a long time to come.
Our visit to the Studio Channel Islands to see the exhibition entitled The Illusionists, curated by Michael Pearce, was one of the highlights. In regards to the curatorial process and reasoning behind this extraordinary presentation of paintings and sculptures Michael Pearce wrote an insightful essay, entitled Imaginative Realists —A New Age of American Art, in which he presents a forward-looking aesthetic philosophy, linking High Art and Pop Culture rooted in sound historical perspective. Read his essay HERE.
Wandering through the exhibition I was enthralled at how the brilliant imaginings of these artists is expressed in electrifying visionary ingenuity. Each piece offers a plethora of visual riches that provokes the inner narrative of the viewer to come alive with a sense of fractional recognition, curiosity, and genuine awe. Yet the overall contents and subject matter are so diverse, one need not fear monotony—this exhibition encourages discovery of strange, whimsical subject matter and invites contemplation of one’s subjective responses regarding the enigmatic, often paradoxical allure of each piece.
The Illusionists shows a wonderful collection of paintings and sculptures in a genre we previously might have called Fantasy Art, a label which is now being discarded because of its associations with an unsophisticated taste in art. Far from being ingenuous, these artworks show the exquisite creative fusion between the meanderings of human fancy and skill-based execution. It was a treat to view this exhibition ahead of its inauguration, especially because nine of the 17 participating artists as well as the curator were present to give a small talk. Each artist briefly reviewed their artwork, describing the premise of their craft rooted in fictitious narratives, imaginary landscapes, the expression of existential trauma, environmental awareness, poignant satire, ethereal splendor, art history, and emblematic visions of the near and distant future.
Guy Kinnear says, “What I really love about Imaginative Realism in general, and with this show in particular, is its balance between rigorous skill, profound concepts, and popular appeal. The general audience has felt alienated from the art gallery for over a century now, but Imaginative Realism speaks again in a language that is familiar and wonderful, that is: full-of-wonder. For those who would soak in the images longer, they will be rewarded with the experience of a carefully crafted reimagining of life as lived. I believe this is signaling a new and more sanguine direction for the Art World, and for the world in general. We want visions of our present and future that affirm a resilient hope.”
About his own work, Kinnear adds, “This is why I work with these child crafted creatures. They are Pinocchio and Frankenstein’s Wretch playfully groping for reconnection. They are trying to find earth, love and hope after their long exile. I want to address environmental and existential brokenness in the world, but come at it with the fresh eyes of wonder, leaving open the possibility of a promising expectation of what could come next.”
Reflecting back on the main theme discussed at TRAC, Regina Jacobson says, “Imaginative Realism, being an oxymoron in terms, describes the ambiguity that comes into play in this exciting genre of fine art. While at first glance the imagery seems to tell a realistic world narrative, as we linger with the piece and allow ourselves to slow to the stillness of a two-dimensional canvas or sculpture, we discover what we thought was realistic is neither completely familiar nor even possible. While Realism purely aims at the portrayal of things we can perceive, Imaginative Realism dances more toward the sides of reality, dipping in and out from what we think of as real, practical and natural, into the fanciful, mythical and curious. By creating artworks with one foot in each of these worlds, the viewer is invited, through imagery they find familiar and comfortable, into a place where their own imagination can be released to discover the extraordinary. But beware, though this world may appear charming, beautiful, even divine, there are also shadows.”
Some of the work in this exhibition isn’t without controversy, such as Conor Walton’s painting entitled Novus Ordo Seclorum. Walton says, “The idea for this painting came from a Facebook discussion about who might paint President Trump’s official portrait. Some of America’s best portrait painters were part of this conversation, but it appeared none of them would touch the job: the words ‚career suicide‘ were mentioned. It struck me as an opportunity lost. I started thinking about how I’d like to paint Trump, and the old Frank Frazetta image of ‚Conan the Barbarian‘ came to mind as a template.
My idea was to paint Trump as he really might like to be painted, in the low-brow vernacular of American fantasy art (which in its primitive machismo is a good fit for his outlook and that of many of his followers) and to do it so shockingly well that—ludicrous as this muscle-bound Trump in a hairy loincloth standing on a heap of skulls, being hailed with fascist salutes, might be—it still might look authentic. The aim is also to ‚dance along the cultural faultline‘ and produce a painting which invites differing and to some extent opposite interpretations depending on which side of the political divide it is viewed from. In this case, one is presented with Trump either as ‚hero-savior‘ or ‚barbarian-destroyer.‘
When Michael Pearce asked me to contribute to the exhibition, and explained the theme and crossover from fantasy art, with ‚Conan‘ artist Boris Vallejo involved, I told him of my idea and he approved. Since the exhibition dates fitted, we decided to put it out on April 1st, claiming it to be President Trump’s official portrait. This got quite a reaction: most viewers realized it was satire, and it was enjoyed on both sides of the political divide, but a surprising number (on both sides) took it seriously. The ensuing commentary was something of an education for all involved, as people came to terms with what I was doing. There was some hostility too, but I think the strength of the response speaks to the continuing relevance of painting, and the audience’s appetite for complex art that reflects contemporary concerns, that is in the largest sense political.”
Joseph Bravo summarizes this exhibition most charismatically, saying, “The Illusionists exhibit is striking for its diversity in examining the parameters of Imaginative Realism. From psychological allegory in the works of Regina Jacobson to the surreal floating avatars of Guy Kinnear, from the art historical fantasia of F. Scott Hess to the beautiful xenospheres of Roger Dean, from the wunderkabinet creations of Sandra Yagi to the domestic futurism of Bryan Larson, from the lyrical elegance of Richard MacDonald’s acrobatic sculptures to Conor Walton’s ambiguous political satire, from Pamela Wilson’s menaced Steam Punk carnival figures to Boris Vallejo’s ominous fairy, from Julie Bell’s pastoral Pegasus to Mark Gleason’s psychically charged Mythical Realism, from Brad Kunkle’s Nouveau-Raphaelite mysticism to Vince Natale’s xenomorphic taxonomy, from Kenna Houtz’ confined harlequin to reckoning the sinister landscape of Mark Poole’s Mal Ojo Bruja each of these artists invokes the simulacra to give palpability to the ambiguous.”
Bravo adds, “Each work carries within it an internal logic that imparts an enigma. No two artists have the same imaginative priorities and Imaginative Realism seems to give license to the idiosyncratic impulse regardless of style, technique or narrative direction. What these artworks deny the audience is easily derived resolutions, as key elements of the context are left just out of range of the viewer’s perception. The works defy self-evident interpretations and are neither kitsch nor transparently predictable. Hence, the viewer is left to complete the narrative with their own imagination, to project as much as derive, to query the semiotic while deciphering meaning and actively engage the artworks as a speculative exercise or resign themselves to the cognitive dissonance of inherent ambiguity.
Whether allegorical or mythological, psychological or philosophical, political or hypothetical, each piece carries both an overt and a subtextual meaning that is implied more than blatantly stated. It is this conspicuous sense of inescapable nuance that commands viewer engagement and provides an enduring intrigue that keeps the viewer’s attention. That this is done with ostentatious virtuosity places these artworks beyond the standard Postmodern fare and imparts a gravity that gives them more credulity than mere glib paradox. There is an authenticity to these artworks that reflects the integrity of the artists who created them and allows us a glimpse into the uniquely mysterious worlds of their creative imaginations.”
In a recent radio interview on KCLU, Roger Dean speaks about art, saying, “For me, art at core has to have several things; it has to have an intent, it has to have skill and craftmanship—it is not about skill and craftmanship but you can’t have great art without great craftmanship. And art has to communicate. This doesn’t mean everybody has to like it, but it has to communicate.”
Asking the curator for a comment, Michael Pearce succinctly states, “It’s a great time to be a representational artist.”
I couldn’t agree more! In addition, I’ll add that now is also a great time to be a skilled artist, i.e., one who takes pride in their craft, understands their chosen medium, cultivates their abilities, favors quality over quantity, and seeks to express profound subject matter that nourishes both the eye and the mind. These are the artists who create eloquent, articulate artwork that may well lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and maybe even our future. If you’re one of the increasing multitudes of art lovers who hunker for stirring, thought-provoking artworks, allow yourself to be impressed and delighted by The Illusionists!
curated by Michael Pearce
March 30th through May 18th, 2019
Studio Channel Islands
2222 E. Ventura Boulevard, Camarillo, CA 93010
50 miles north of LA on Hwy 101
Ventura County’s Studio Channel Islands is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.
The exhibition catalog will soon become available for online purchase, please check back for the link.
Cover image: Roger Dean – Green Parrot Island (detail)
F. Scott Hess