New Genre Pictures
When André Félibien edited his comments of 1667’s lectures at Paris’s Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, he introduced in his preface a theory that would alternately guide and frustrate budding artists for decades – even centuries – to come. Since referred to as the "hierarchy of genres," his concept, generally interpreted, made two major claims: firstly, painting is the most accomplished two-dimensional medium; and secondly, not all paintings are created equal. His classification of paintings would guide future Academies throughout Europe. In their efforts at first training and then applauding artists, they delineated varying hierarchies of subject matter, typically with history paintings reigning supreme and the still-life or landscape paintings coming in last. The hierarchy of genres, in its overt bias, simplistic judgment system, and later brutal examination under postmodern gender, economic, and cultural theories, is no guiding principle for today’s higher education in the arts. In contemporary society, an MFA student fretting over taking a commission of Zeus chasing Europa versus sketching a vase of lilies would seem as quaintly ironic as a poli sci scholar arguing that state-sponsored communism is successful in practice. Nonetheless, looking to systems of the past can assist in grappling with the ambiguities of the present, and New Genre Pictures, in referencing such a history, raises many questions highly applicable to contemporary artmaking. Whatever happened to painting? In the ubiquity of the nefariously popular mixed media designation, how can disparate artworks currently be categorized? In what ways can one judge technological manipulation in a work as a marker of an artist’s skill? And are the genres of old still relevant to contemporary society? New Genre Pictures presents the works of four artists and their variations of the art world’s current medium darling, photography, to start the process of untangling some of these questions’ answers.
Thomas Hauser's series Amazona seems, at first glance, to offer the most straightforward interpretation of the still-life genre. Luscious blooms are displayed and immortalized with all of the beauty and attention that one might find in a Dutch painting of yore. Upon closer examination, a viewer meets with a strange discomfort. The flowers, so often emblematic of a timeless memento mori message, are housed in the trappings of the industrial age, such as beer bottles and plastic mugs. These material goods bring about the realization that this genre is still a product of its time and added meaning may be derived from considering a piece from one's contemporary life. While modern photography practitioners like Edward Weston may capture the natural elegance of a pepper, Hauser includes products that evoke remarkably current debates, such as commercialism and environmentalism. Looking at one of his compositions inspires multiple messages: while perhaps one should "remember he will die," it is entirely possible that the goods with which western capitalism defines itself will endure centuries.
Sam Falls, in his direct engagement with art historical matters, provides many accessible points of entry in revamping the concept of genre. In just one example, he presents a lone candle against a simple white backdrop. The candle is a tested compositional tool for painters; it can provide a proven light source within a genre picture of daily life, and it may offer ample opportunities to showcase a mastery over the depiction of light, using such tools as chiaroscuro. Falls upends these expectations in this presentation. Under the harsh bulbs of a photography studio, the candle loses both its potential to illuminate and to plunge areas into shadow. Technology overwhelms it, and revelation is now entirely the photographer's purview.
Lucas Blalock's pieces utilize technological advances to obscure some of the expectations of genre. His attention to the "brushstrokes" of Photoshop, and the ways in which he treats them, suggest a conceptual mastery of photo-manipulation. In his works, tabletops become landscapes pitted with fissures and accented by peaks. Eggs transform into intricate ovoid cages. Filtered portraits provide multiple views of a single subject. He appears to utilize different techniques not to compensate for deficiencies, but to further highlight contemporary concerns with both the tenets of formalism in addition to the loaded meanings and readings that represented objects may be molded to present.
When one considers those works by Bill Sullivan focused on the figure, his "portraiture" appears as much a construct of the present-day artist as it was of the past practitioner. However, the choices he makes in regards to composition reveal some of the differences that new media have inspired in this particular genre. Because commercial portrait photographers can so easily provide lasting, idealized images, fine art photographers are left to examine and construct identity in different manners. For Sullivan, he fragments the body, both through surveillance-like croppings of trunks and limbs, but also by obscuring line and form with pixelated treatments. The images give the effect of being documentary while artificial, and hastily stolen while time-consumingly reworked.
Little would be gained should contemporary artists attempt to redefine - or even reorder - Félibien's hierarchy of genres. Like so many definitive statements, it would simply be another ethos for future generations to dissect. There is a certain utility, however, in having genres as a reference point, if only for the ability to start understanding and sorting the massive quantities of product, styles, and subjects in the contemporary art market across media. It is easy to view Félibien as foolhardy in ranking genres, but he will continue to be invaluable in applying the vocabulary through which one may track their evolutions.
The exhibition title, New Genre Pictures, could be viewed as stylizing itself as the next in a long line of art movements across cultures - like Neo-impressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Topographics - whose names have quite literally positioned them as the next innovation in artmaking. However, these collected photographers differ from those precedents in that their works do not necessarily answer to, announce, or even aver a cohesive style. If anything, their choice of terming the works under the more generalized "Pictures" allows for an open-ended inclusion of other works that both cross media and combine media. For those questions with which the contemporary art world struggles, Hauser, Falls, Blalock, and Sullivan instead band together to offer a variety of tactics through which they may examine, or even complicate, them.
Lauren Turner June 2010