Arts & Culture Visual Arts

The Role of Contemporary Realism

Artistic Associations

The international art community is large and amorphous, reaching its long arms across many different mediums and styles. Widely accepted terms like Modern Art and Contemporary Art seek to encapsulate worldwide shifts in technique, materials, and accurate perceptions of what art looks like today.

But even these extremely broad terms fail to accurately capture the cultural blurring effect that has been taking place for the past 30 or so years. It’s a mistake to try to summarize and simplify art when, in reality, visual arts don’t have a singular direction or trajectory.

If, for example, we take a look at the works of Pablo Picasso, we see a definite shift from realism to cubism to surrealism over the course of his long career.

At the time, the assumption may have been that new works of art from that point onward would follow this same trajectory, that surrealism would become the dominant art style of its time, just as realism was the dominant style for many hundreds of years.

But this wasn’t the case. Other forms gained popularity, enjoying a limited amount of time on the world stage. Surrealism begat abstract expressionism which in turn gave rise to pop art and postmodernist work.

With the advent of the internet, the idea of a dominant artistic style essentially evaporated. There was steady, organic change as artists and art lovers the world over gravitated toward whichever style they felt most strongly about.

Contemporary art, as it is understood by the public, with all its trappings of installation pieces and absurdist performance art, is far from the only style on offer. It doesn’t dominate the cultural landscape any more than art house films dominate the box office.

There are still many artists working in the realms of pop art, postmodernism, Dadaism, surrealism, and realism. Even more significant: every one of these styles is still culturally valid, each one still has the ability to surprise, inform, and carry emotional weight.   

Challenges and Triumphs

Kun Wang is an accomplished contemporary artist who has built his career on realist oil paintings. Or, perhaps more accurately, paintings reminiscent of romantic realism.

We’ll be discussing his influences in more detail later in the piece, but even to the untrained eye, Wang’s work has a very clear connection to more traditional paintings, the kind of work typically seen in the most prestigious art museums on the planet.

Wang’s work has won a slew of awards and has been displayed in exhibitions in the U.S., Australia, South Korea, and China.

But long before finding success in the art world, Wang first had to confront many personal challenges. Wang’s legs were paralyzed by Polio when he was just three years old. Wang’s condition was so severe that he was unable to travel beyond his community to attend art classes. As a result, he spent many hours learning to paint on his own.

When you take a look at Wang’s paintings, it may be difficult to believe that he was self-taught. The immense technical skill involved is immediately apparent, even to untrained eyes.

Artvoice spoke with Wang about his career and the role of realism in the contemporary art scene. We started by examining visual arts in a general sense, and what they can offer compared to other artistic mediums.  

Advantages Of Visual Arts

There is sometimes a strange sense of competition among different art mediums. Many media outlets seem all too eager to declare the death of the written word, or that movies have somehow superseded all other contemporary art forms.

But for those who dedicate their time to the arts, each medium maintains its own special qualities that other forms simply cannot offer.

Wang pointed out that the visual arts offer something special that we don’t see very often in many other mediums.

“Visual art can provide an audience with something other art forms cannot provide, and that is stillness. It can be independently placed in a position for a long time and remain in place to allow for viewing and contemplation.”

This opportunity to absorb work at one’s own pace is an opportunity that many take for granted as entertainment and media have become more fast-paced and unyielding.

There is a great deal of value in sitting with a work of art and learning what it means to you, how it affects you.  

The Old Masters

Wang’s influences include Rembrandt and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Many casual art fans don’t engage with work by these masters beyond museums and art history classes, but Wang has continued to find inspiration in their techniques, especially when it comes to lighting.

“The lighting in my work was indeed influenced by the masters of classical art in the 17th and 18th centuries. Through the expressive lighting of the masters’ exquisite works of art, I experience the unique charm and power of lighting in artistic expression.”

Shadow of Doubt by Kun Wang. Note the stylings reminiscent of the Old Masters.

At the same time, Wang has been able to tweak those age-old techniques to achieve a look all his own. Classical work simply serves as a jumping-off point.

We spoke with famed art critic Peter Frank about Wang’s work and its relation to classical painting. Frank has written for LA Weekly, The Huffington Post, and The Village Voice, in addition to serving as a renowned curator based in both Los Angeles and New York.

He highlighted how Wang’s work is able to become something entirely its own while still utilizing established techniques.

“This hyper-artfulness is what draws us to the work of Gérôme, Sargent, Constable, Menzel, and so many other 19th century realists. Like them, Wang clearly emulates earlier Western painters, the Venetians, for instance, or the Dutch. But, for all his virtuosity, distills his own style from all he has beheld.”

Realism in a Contemporary Landscape

So what role does realism play in the landscape of contemporary art? If you walk into a contemporary art museum today, you’d be hard-pressed to find traditional realism paintings, with notable exceptions such as works by Kehinde Wiley. Realism is often unfairly relegated to more traditional galleries and museum spaces.

Wang has grown accustomed to these challenges, recognizing that there are certain barriers in place, intentional or unintentional, that limit the scope of realist paintings.

“As one of the most important art forms in contemporary visual art, the realist school has a profound history and a record of brilliant artistic achievement. In the diverse world of contemporary art, realistic art faces constant challenges. Realist painting, as the oldest art form, has a unique and irreplaceable artistic allure. While it is affected by the development of art, it still shows strong vitality.

There’s a temptation here to pose Wang’s dedication to realism as an act of opposition or rebellion. In the realm of writing, for example, there is an established precedent of authors writing specifically in opposition to other authors. A notable example is writer Samuel Beckett, wrote in opposition to another great Irish writer: James Joyce.

Wang, however, does not see his work as existing in opposition to anything. Rather, it’s an attempt to highlight the inherent value of the form.

“My traditional realist painting is not a return to tradition or a response to the abstractionist movements of the early part of the 20th century. My goal is to continue painting in the realist form in order to revitalize the form and give it new life.”

Peter Frank has confirmed this revitalization while speaking of Kun’s work:

“Hyper-realistic painting in the 21st century asks us different questions than photography does. Certainly, Kun Wang’s painting invites us to contemplate the gap between the brushstroke and the subject, and how much such a gap can be closed. Wang also poses cultural contrasts, depicting as he does Chinese subjects, emphatically identified as such, while employing Western academic method.”

The Creative State

We were curious about Wang’s creative process. Many painters have become well-known for their unique attitudes toward creating a new piece. Anyone with even a cursory background of art history will know that the act of creation isn’t always a joyful experience. It involves a number of challenges, frustrations, and interruptions.

For Wang, the process is slow and careful, requiring a significant amount of preparation before setting brush to canvas.

“When I create a new painting, I require intense emotional preparation. When I am attracted by an image, a plot, a beam of light, or whatever it may be, I enter a dreamlike state. The image I see in my mind is full of different impressions and ideas, and I experience a powerful impulse and desire to express it. The process is very beautiful, very enjoyable, and yet also very painful.”

Creating a painting takes time, patience, and more than a little artistic inspiration. When all of these elements come together, Wang is able to make something that speaks to viewers, and that will continue to speak to them for years to come.

Filial Influence

During our conversation, Wang spoke at some length about how his father has been especially crucial to his success and his career as a whole.

“My father is an ordinary worker in a factory. He has no higher education. He does not understand art, but he is the most important person in my life. Throughout my childhood, whenever I encountered difficulties, he would always be my strongest supporter. He gave me moral support, encouragement, companionship, and the courage to overcome difficulties.”

The story holds an interesting contrast to those of other great artists throughout history. Mozart’s father, for instance, was incredibly harsh with young Wolfgang and sought to profit from his son’s obvious talent. Wang’s father, on the other hand, was a shining example of support, care, and love. This perpetual kindness gave Wang the confidence and security he needed to succeed.

In Conclusion, Express Yourself

There are certainly lessons to be learned here, the most significant of which is the importance of following your own artistic aspirations, regardless of what happens to be stylish and popular at the time.

Wang’s work demonstrates the value of developing technical skill and pairing those abilities with genuine emotional honesty.

For artists of any medium, this combination holds the key to effective work that speaks to its audience.  

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Michael Thompson

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