Contemporary realism started in the 1960s as a negative reaction to the popularity of abstract expressionism—but is that where it’s stayed? Contemporary representational painters say no. Artists are using the genre to talk about everything from their local communities to female agency and beyond.
San Antonio, Texas-based artist Alex Rubio describes his approach to his semi-representational, figurative work as an expression of his community, spirituality, and personal history. Visual narratives with identifiable subject matter are simply what he’s drawn to as opposed to contrasting his work against modernism. Speaking about his residency at the prestigious San Antonio non-profit arts organization Artpace, where he was encouraged to experiment boldly in a space meant for installations, he admits that moving beyond two dimensions was an exciting but difficult challenge: “This was the first time that I was challenged to think outside the 2Dworld of painting and drawing, and to take my visual concepts off the canvas... I think the curator was interested in seeing how I would translate those into three-dimensional space. I relied on several of my drawings, and I created a narrative based on them. The drawings were inspired by my life.” Aligning with Artpace’s goal, he used his residency as a space to experiment with new media; he invited artists working with Argon (neon), steel welding, video, and more to collaborate with him. He blended his previously 2D work into a space inviting wild experimentation seamlessly, finally producing an installation creating an “intimate, yet panoramic sense of his city’s many Latino communities”.
His residency demonstrates how some artists working traditionally are staying relevant in contemporary art—they adapt to newer, less conventional ways of working that have gained popularity since the advent of modern art (like experimental walk-through installations) while incorporating their traditional practices.
Other artists have shown similar ways of working: Brazilian representational painter &contemporary artist Regina Parra, for instance, combined large-scale, traditional figurative paintings with multi-person performance art in her one-person show in São Paulo to explore female agency in a patriarchal society.
New publications highlighting similar work by other contemporary representational painters are springing up constantly. For instance, in 2018, London-based magazine and artist network Artit came out with their first “Voice of Artists” issue featuring artwork living at the intersection between highly-skilled representational and contemporary art and have published 13 new issuessince.
Our conclusion? Representational art is here for the long-haul.