Artist's Statement of Intent
Robert M. Sullivan
When John Singer Sargent's teacher, Carolus-Duran, invoked the cardinal rules of painting to his students with a cry of "Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez!" - he was essentially exhorting them to follow "tradition, tradition, tradition." His reasons for such an emboldened and singular proclamation follows the logic of all realist pedagoguery that has existed in the art world: A successful approach containing specific techniques regarding drawing and painting has existed since the time of Giorgione (at least). Therefore, the teaching should follow that one should learn those techniques prior to any "reinvention" of said approach.
Since that time, as art history clearly shows, the classical approaches have not only been reinvented, the traditions themselves have been largely eschewed; cast aside for the sake of a more contemporary, "relevant" context. Yet, the tradition still lives on - however, in a much less catholic atmosphere. Nevertheless, I have been schooled in these painting traditions, and they are my province.
That I am a skilled representational realist painter inexorably ties me to the millstone of anachronism as popularized in the contemporary art world. In the review columns, critical theory runs on autopilot in this regard, deigning such skill sets as superfluous and facile, having nothing new to offer the art world, let alone affect any cultural change or interest. And ultimately, the question gets proposed: "Is representational painting dead?" And I have to assess my relevance as an artist in such a genre, not to mention the relevance of the genre itself.
But, what gives rise to this rather moribund query? Well, before any attempt at fully answering that question is made, other questions must be proposed: "Is photography dead? Is the written word dead? Is sculpture dead?" Or, are these questions sort of ludicrous? Of course they are. None of these things, just because they are "old" (two centuries, 4000 BC and 20,000 BC, respectively) requires that they are inapplicable to 21st-Century thinking. It is notable that no one is asking questions about these subjects with the same sort of vociferousness as regards representational painting. The proclamation of the imminent "death" of any established art form is a foolish venture. The relevance of art is subject to larger cultural shifts, borne on the shifting currents of broad society and not a closed coterie of critical theorists.
That said, my personal take on how my art is viewed has shifted, as well. No longer am I angry or dismissive of the modern art scene at large, with its intent to pigeonhole me into a world of kitsch and sidewalk festivals. Having been not only trained in classical traditions, I also had the benefit of training in classic illustration tradition, borne from the same wellspring as 19th Century French atelier traditions, but with a decidedly American twist, thanks to Howard Pyle and those who followed after. So, when the Norman Rockwell retrospective was shown at the bastion of all things contemporary in art - the Guggenheim - in late 2001, and brought in the biggest crowd (not to mention a box office record) to date in that institution, I felt completely validated. Someone who was so completely vilified by the contemporary art scene as a practitioner of "bad art" was suddenly embraced into one of its most sacred temples. The lesson learned is that I need not try to impress any particular faction with my art; there should be no concern with these kinds of thoughts, and they should be removed from my process.
So, I am a traditionalist living in contemporary times - therefore - I can reflect both of those things... and why not? That is the journey of the representational painter, anyway. Being inundated with all things contemporary - be it technology, media, or cultural environments - cannot be avoided completely. So, it comes out in the work in some way, perhaps not discernible, perhaps bold and confrontational, but it will be in there. We record, we reflect, we invent, we narrate. The "soul" of any artist is their work, and one's soul reflects one's experiences. I do not recall whether or not I've had a past life, so I cannot draw experience from that. No, I live in 21st Century America, and my art will reflect that when I am long gone, and my work remains.
The whole argument of "old" and "new" is also irrelevant, in my estimation. Anything new is just an interesting amalgam of the old. My own brand of art stems from old and new: The 19th Century academics; Sargent; the Hudson River School; the Golden Age illustrators; the Wyeths; Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent; fantasy art such as Frank Frazetta; comic art such as John Buscema and Frank Miller; and new realists Vincent Desiderio, Bo Bartlett, Alyssa Monks and Tula Telfair, to name a few. Looking at all those names and eras combines into an artistic soup that is certainly new. Granted, there are a lot of artists who take their cues from what's listed here, but not from all of it - and, if so - certainly not the way I have done it. Plus, if all these are added up against my personal, contemporary experiences, then we have something familiar and expressive enough to draw an audience into the experience without the oftentimes impregnable barriers of requisite critical thinking that pervades todays Post-postmodernist era.
But, such as it is with my artistic journey, it is decidedly incomplete. There are many artists of like and unlike mind: peers and contemporaries who participate in the world of art at this time whose experiences are no less relevant than my own. And there are teachers whose deep scholarly examinations provide a plenitude of information reckoning art in this time and in times past. Were I to invest in the time to learn from these folk, who are indeed kin to me within the world of art, it would allow me to move into the next phase of my journey. What that is is unclear, but I do know that the Master of Fine Arts program at the [name omitted for confidentiality] can provide that opportunity for me to make that investment.
In my visit to an in-residency open house at [XYZ U.], I was more than impressed at the level of focus and commitment of not only the faculty, but the students as well. It touched off a realization of the fact that the kind of detailed exploration into looking at one's own work (not to mention others') with a group of one's contemporaries is more than critical to the next stage of artistic development. It may be trite, but it holds true that one cannot artistically grow and mature in a vacuum. My art is not merely part of my livelihood, it is who I am as a person. It needs to grow right along with me. An MFA at [XYZ U.] would facilitate that growth, and I am willing to accept the school's excellent curriculum as my guide, should I be accepted into the program.