A few years ago I walked in West End Gallery to preview a Tom Buechner show. A large nude of a large woman was hung near the back. Lin Gardner said the artist painted it many years ago. She said something else. Tom had sadly said when looking at it, he could not paint that painting today.
Some time ago I was having work done on my house. The contractor was a friend, but he surprised me when he said he’d been in West End Gallery recently. I asked if he liked anything. He said the paintings were nice, but only one stood out for him. It was a small landscape upstairs, propped up against a wall. When I asked him what he liked about it, he said it “looked just like a photograph”. Later I was in the gallery and searched for the painting. I don’t remember the artist, but my friend was right – it looked just like a photograph.
Technique is a seductive lover. The beginning artist falls in love (as well he should) with Technique. She is his ‘moon and stars’. The artist is learning the craft of painting, practicing night and day to capture reality. Technique whispers in his ear urging him on and on, until one day he is competent with the brush, familiar with his craft, and well on the road to capturing reality. Now a crossroad appears; choices must be made. Does he follow Technique down one path, or does he explore the options in a circle all around him.
Technique is beautiful and tempting, but for a painter her way leads to a dead end – the photograph.
It wasn’t always so. Before the invention of photography, and for some time after, an artist was judged on how well he represented reality. Over time, as photography was perfected and became an art in itself, it became apparent to artists that painting was in a futile competition with photography to represent the physical nature of reality. Painting then opened up a variety of possible realities: Impressionism, Abstraction, Abstract Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, – a multitude of paths for any artist to choose. Paths that begin with Technique, yet ultimately divorce her.
Painting is not photography. It is the art of laying down a medium to express an idea to the viewer. Its purpose is not to capture reality. Its purpose is not to look “just like a photograph”. There is a movie on Netflix about a man who spent eight years on a drawing of Marilyn Monroe. His start was a photograph. His aim was to go beyond the photograph. In order to judge whether he had succeeded, he asked David Hockney to view the drawing. Hockney was appreciative of the artist’s effort, and thanked him for the opportunity to view it. Later, after the artist left, Hockney turned to his assistant and remarked, “It’s just the f—ing photograph”. In other words, the artist had failed. Using painting to approach the photograph asks the question – Why?
Photography is an indispensable tool for artists, opening infinitude of choices for the artist. No longer bound by the model in front of him, the painter is free to represent life. Dancers can be caught in mid-air, muscles taught. Fleeting expressions moving across a face can be caught. The photo is a useful reference used as a platform from which to leap.
A painting is a record of choices. An artist begins with a blank surface. The first line is a choice, then a decision, then another choice and another decision, on and on until there are no more choices or decisions to be made. One reason every painting is unique is because the artist cannot replicate the multitude of choices he made, even if he wants to. An artist can’t paint the exact same picture twice.
An artistic career is like a blank canvas. Large and small choices are made, roads and paths are chosen, and it’s rare for an artist to find his way back to a choice he made. The direction is forward; exploration, discovery, drive the artist ahead, always looking ahead. Near the end of his career an artist can look back at the choices made. There is a record in the work left behind. I think maybe Tom Buechner, when looking at his painting of the nude, realized the journey he’d taken. I believe him when he said he couldn’t paint that painting today, not because of age or loss of skill, simply because of the accumulation of choices and decisions he’d made since then. Life is change and we can almost never go back, but in a way we have photographs to take us back.
— Jeff Perrault