Julian Heaton Cooper, Casino del Selva, oil on canvas, 1984
A British artist whose paintings I’ve never seen stateside but that look marvelous in every way. As well as the masterful painting, I’m particularly drawn to the subject matter–a series of paintings based on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Lowry has long been one of my favorite writers.
Then beneath the series of Under the Volcano paintings which can be clicked on and enlarged there’s a wonderful triptych on the assassination of the heroic Chico Mendes.
It’s always so enlivening and refreshing to see paintings with narrative content based on literary sources or political content. Cooper is quoted as saying about the Mendes triptych “I chose a subject like this because I believe figurative painting to earn its keep alongside photography, cinema and television must break out of its own self-referential cycle.”
This is a sentiment that I heartily agree with. Contemporary painting, particularly led in this direction by American painting, has with very few exceptions practically outlawed painting with narrative content that isn’t self-referential, much less political content. It often seems that America has only had a single painter with doggedly political content since the Triumph of American Painting in the 50s. … Leon Golub. If I wrack my brains I might be able to come up with a second one but nothing springs to mind right away.
As far as self-referential figurative painting goes, it amounts to my entire dismissal of the so-called Classical Realist painting exemplified by Jacob Collins and co. — now an enormous presence that is clearly linked in my mind to the right-wing political/cultural conservatism that engulfs this country to the point of virtually ensuring the economic destruction of the middle and working classes. And I’d include Obama among the right-wing political conservatives since he clearly subscribes to the disastrous Republican pioneered Reaganite Neoliberal economic philosophy, which at the end of the day is all that will matter in the eradication of the middle class as we move into neo-Feudalism…. not that any American painters seem to have noticed this going on, at least in their paintings.
For Classical Realism see here: https://trueoutsider.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/445/
There is a story behind why social realist painting with its interest in depicting the lives of the working class was completely upended and trashed as retrograde art that is rivetingly documented in a small number of books. Here’s a good one: The Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders which I want to re-examine as soon as I have time to do so. And yes, it does involve the CIA and the Museum of Modern Art in the 50s in the midst of the Cold War.
America had it’s own narrative painters, as well as those with political content. They’ve largely been consigned to the memory hole.
I want to try to offer some exposure to social realist, both those that preceded the tyranny of American Abstraction and those that painted outside the narrow academic requirements of flatness, decorative and theoretical painting, with some attempts to revive figuration with human narrative content.
I’m actually tempted to pick up an Art Forum, for example, and count through the number of paintings that are reproduced containing figuration with narrative content that’s not self-referential. By that I mean, painting that isn’t some form of conceptual art strategy vs. painting that is actually depicting some kind of social reality in an non-ironic manner.
Anyone viewing the site can see that I’m a great admirer of the New York School, while not a fan of what followed it, with some exceptions. I’m not advocating for a return to Social Realist painting so much as pointing out that there’s an obvious ideology that American painting represents that is absolutely destructive of great painting’s interests in that the heart of the tradition of Western painting for hundreds of years has been the human drama. —That drama has been nearly entirely neglected to the point that viewing much contemporary American art amounts to an exercise in masochism.