I arrived in New York City in 2006, found an illegal loft in a dreary yellow brick industrial building, and began to settle into a typical community of artists and fresh-off-the-boat bohemians. In time I discovered that within these Soviet style warehouses there were artists making the kind of art you won’t often see at the Whitney Biennial, and only rarely glimpse in the glitzy galleries with the outsized frosted glass doors. Like the expendable black teen in a slasher movie, these artists were cast, but weren’t likely to live to see the credits.
These figurative artists developed an informal, nurturing, creative community. They existed on the periphery. Like early blues or jazz musicians they shared, critiqued, and pushed each other to develop without much connection to the expectations of the larger industry. Within this group of artists, I discovered a subgroup of painters making narrative art and looking back at history painting, as it was practiced before the 20th century.
Many of these artists born roughly between the 1970’s and 90’s absorbed mythology through films such as Star Wars, and novels by Tolkien or Philip K. Dick. By the time this generation came of age, Postmodernism and academic revisionists had stripped bare any deep curriculum of classics or serious study of western civilization. These artists searched for their own inspiration, making it natural to explore outside the official academic cannon. For this group of painters, heretics such as John Waterhouse became as wholesome a source of inspiration as Manet or Picasso.
Self-education particularly from original sources can free an artist from the ruts of accepted institutional ideas. Values taught regarding what should and should not give pleasure are replaced by an indiscriminate indulgence gradually forming a personal canon. We enter the mindset of the cave painters of Altamira or the medieval stone carvers who were not consciously in art history. They worked before art history existed as a discipline, and even longer before we presumed to judge a piece of art by how it conforms to a manufactured chronology, filled with holes and ideologically driven assumptions of artistic purpose.
To these painters, the art object exists first. Among some of the earliest evidence of mankind are painting and sculpture. Unless prohibited, the making of representational images spreads universally across cultures. It is a fundamental human instinct, and like eating or sex, it is its own reward. The pleasure, awe, and erotic thrill of making and viewing images is the reason for making them. Our theories as to why are only rationalizations like shadows of figures cast on a wall.
This visceral response to direct stimuli is the way to approach this work. It becomes a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk that embraces representation, narrative, symbolism, and design in both two and three dimensions. In figurative art, these are not abstract concepts from the head, but timeless forces to be spun like a spider weaves a web.
In Mothers by Nicola Verlato, flying women, cars, and debris form visual whirlwinds that would make Tintoretto dizzy. The tense articulated muscularity of the foreshortened bodies makes us sympathetically feel the movements of the figures. This creates a third level of kinetics in our own body, reinforcing the representation of moving objects. All is structured within vast spirals in three dimensions pulling us rhythmically around a very convincing pictorial space.
Another artist working in this style is Los Angeles-based painter Carl Dobsky. His Ship of Fools makes a playful reference to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa: the figures form a tightly knit pattern radiating like a mandala. The gestures express stages of confusion and desperation in the face of disaster. The image acts like an altarpiece to the futility of human struggle and ego. Dobsky walks a fine line between natural and artificial, and we allow ourselves to be convinced in part by the illusionistic technique with which effects of light on flesh, cloth and water are painted with the realism of a 17th-century Dutchman. Humans are hardwired to enjoy real mastery, and the pleasure we take in Dobsky’s virtuosity entices us to follow his lead into the darker parts of this Boschian painting.
Academics have a difficult time explaining the magic of paintings like these. These works imbue space, light, and figures with formal and narrative functions. They are artificial compositions in two and three dimensions, yet naturalistic enough that we engage emotionally with the people existing within. There is narrative but not like that in a film or novel. The plot does not unfold sequentially in time. This art acts in space, and as such does not move to a conclusion but remains in the present. This is why it does not need to be constantly updated and changed. It is created laboriously by hand and must be so. Each part is given attention and is adjusted to take its place in the totality of the piece.
These artists are just two examples of contemporary history painting. Their art is a direct response to our instinctual and neurological makeup and tells stories that access the world of myths and dreams hard-wired into our subconscious.
History painting had a bumpy ride in the 20th century. It was discredited by its association with the old regimes as the new press cast its lot in with the rising republican governments. It was also at odds with the industrial class that wished to transform our physical environment into an automobile-driven concrete Eden. These engineers held the assumption that nature and our own internal natures are blank slates on which they could write whatever they desired without repercussions or compensatory reaction. The myth of Icarus is not the only story that seems relevant again.
Our relation to aesthetics defines the art we make, the homes we live in, and the cities share. Cities designed with the experience of humans in mind, and art designed with an understanding of who we are, can contribute to a path forward as deindustrialization, environmental degradation, and the need to build vast new cities in which to accommodate rising populations forces us to assess the connection between beauty, art, nature, and our continued sanity.