Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Even the harshest caricature requires balance.  Artists with strong opinions may try extreme exaggerations, only to discover that their caricatures lose strength rather than gaining it.  Illustrator Ralph Steadman offered one reason why caricaturists can't afford to get too carried away:
Distortion ultimately loses its potency as it departs too dramatically from authentic human or bestial form
Artists with the talent to maintain control at the extremes-- who can approach the limits, but retain the hair-line judgment to know when to stop-- those are the masters who are able to devise some truly devastating images.   (I'm not talking here about mere likenesses.  The drawings I'm describing are in a different category from anything Al Hirschfeld or David Levine or Mort Drucker ever dreamed up.)

The following are examples of such caricature from artists I admire.  First is Steve Brodner's depiction of Ted Cruz:

Fairly conventional caricatures surround Brodner's vicious treatment of Cruz
Brodner's unerring eye located the reptilian elements in Cruz's DNA and brought them to the fore

Tom Fluharty's devastating treatment of Hilary Clinton won attention-- and laughs-- from both sides of the aisle.


Here, Fluharty-- who is really a very nice person in real life-- contorts Obama's face to the limits of recognizability.

Fluharty's expertise as a portrait painter enables him to take great liberties with the bones and muscles of the face, without losing control
In the following picture, John Cuneo literally strips bare a rogue's gallery of saggy old (mostly white) guys:


No limits: Dick Cheney's shriveled penis draped on the coffin of the war dead

Steadman believed that "The very dark primeval spur of all drawing [is] the deep desire to wield a supernatural power over a victim, the subject of the portrayal." 

As you try to erase these horrifying images from your mind, you can feel that power at work. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015


My good friend Walt Reed passed away this morning at age 97.

Illustrator Tom Lovell once said: "It was Walt Reed that single-handedly preserved illustration as art." Walt was the founding father of the study of American illustration.  Also its chief archivist and its patron saint.  There was never anyone who loved illustration more, or with greater purity.

Through his many excellent books and articles, and his founding of the Illustration House gallery, Walt built a platform for everyone who followed.  

 As illustration art-- once scorned in "legitimate" art circles-- became more accepted it attracted a different breed of dealer-- sharpsters and profiteers who lacked Walt's expertise, ethics or taste but who smelled an opportunity for profit.  They produced glossy books with inferior scholarship.  They scooped up Walt's inventory and resold it at inflated prices to unwary Hollywood celebrities. One opened a glittering palace of illustration in Rhode Island, modeled after Versailles.  Another ran an illustration empire from Miami.

Walt remained unfazed as the art market heated up around him.  Humble, plodding, steadfast and scrupulously honest, he focused on the art he loved, rather than aggressive marketing.  In 97 years, he never did learn to squeeze the maximum profit from selling originals, but he always found time to talk to students like me who didn't have two nickels to rub together.

I thought about this recently when I visited Walt in his small, sparse home.  All of the big oil paintings by Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth that Walt once sold for a pittance had long ago passed on to other hands, and on his wall remained one lone ink drawing by Edwin Austin Abbey.  It seemed unjust that aggressive marketers had monetized Walt's early vision and were now living in luxury, while Walt remained behind in a threadbare sweater.  But it turned out that Walt had one more lesson to teach me, perhaps the most important lesson of all

He insisted on showing me something in the drawing on his wall.  He scared the hell out of me as he struggled to his feet and teetered on wobbly legs.  I stood ready to catch him at any second, but he made it to the wall, took the drawing down and (with much effort) carried it to the window so we could admire the penwork together.  Once there, he pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed on my own.  He talked with such excitement and enthusiasm about the drawing, it was clear he was still thrilled by the beauty of the art.  I never heard his prosperous competitors talk with such excitement about anything except a commercial transaction.

And I realized Walt's threadbare sweater didn't matter a damn.  He had triumphed over all of them. He understood and appreciated the beauty of this slender drawing in a way that his carnivorous competition  never would.  And in doing so, he gained the best of what art has to offer.  As I think and write about this kind of art, I do my best to remember the nature of Walt's great victory and to follow that path myself.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Over the last two weeks we've discussed "unschooled" art, which abandons technical skill in favor of a naive, primitive look.   We debated the continuing relevance of "skill" in today's art world, and the challenge of distinguishing "loose and spontaneous" art which is good, from "sloppy and lazy" art, which is bad.

During that discussion a number of commenters reminded us that "skill" has its own pitfalls-- art can be technically skillful yet hollow and insubstantial.

That's probably a good opening to talk about Nelson Shanks

Shanks is one of the most sought after portrait painters in the world, as he will readily tell you. (His web site describes him as a "world-renowned painter, art historian, art teacher, connoisseur and collector [with a] lifelong... devotion to fine arts." ) He is the darling of the Art Renewal Center which, in the overheated rhetoric of its Chairman, blames the success of unskilled art on a "conspiracy... to malign and degrade the reputations" of traditional artists using "pathetic lies and distortions." 

Few would question Shanks' technical virtuosity, but I confess I find much of his work uninspiring.

Shanks is one of the most literal painters around today.  There doesn't seem to be a square inch of ambiguity in his work.  Any mystery comes from his arrangement of odd objects and symbols, which  all seem to be painted realistically in the same fanatical detail.

Even a camera seems to do more prioritizing than Shanks.  A photograph's depth of field at least puts some elements in sharper focus than others.  But in these paintings by Shanks, every element has the same high definition sharpness, right down to the complex patterns on fabric.  Shanks is undiscriminating; the elements which might play a supporting role receive the same explicit treatment as elements which should be given priority.  And don't look for economy in these paintings.  Don't look for suggestion or openness or playfulness or vitality either.   

Personally, I find more art (and more humanity) in the work of other traditional realists such as Burt SilvermanJeremy Lipking or Adrian Gottlieb.
Shanks fans tout the symbolism in his paintings.  For example, in this portrait of Princess Diana, the composition is supposed to symbolize her isolation and loneliness. 

To me, this heavy handed symbolism places Shanks in the same category as romance cover painter Elaine Duillo, who shares Shanks' technical skill but got paid a lot less due to class and gender biases.

Last week Shanks created a stir by revealing to the press that in his 2006 portrait of President Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery he hid the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal:

Shanks said, "It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him." Shanks called Clinton "the most famous liar of all time."

If Shanks had turned down a prestigious presidential assignment because Shanks disapproved of the President, he would've been a profile in courage.  Or if Shanks had warned the National Portrait Gallery that he was not painting the statesman-like image they wanted, he would have been an artist of principle.  Even if he had kept his hidden symbols secret, he would've been no worse than other rascal artists before him.  But he did none of these things. 

When Shanks auditioned for the job, he lied: "I need to be fairly straightforward. I'll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right."  He won the commission by traveling to Washington and presenting his portfolio of respectful portraits to Clinton.  After winning the first phase, he was required to present a preliminary sketch for approval.  (His sketch obviously did not include the now infamous shadow).  He did not reveal what he was up to until the painting had been unveiled to the public and was hanging prominently in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, Shanks went to the press to brag about how he had duped his client.  Later, he had the temerity to complain that his painting was not getting enough exhibition time, probably  due to pressure from the Clintons.
As far as I'm concerned, the example of Nelson Shanks offers us not one but two important lessons about technical skill: 
  1. Technical skill is no guarantee of artistic quality
  2. Technical skill is no guarantee that an artist is not a jackass