Category: Realism

Exhibit: Voces/Voices of the People

I will be exhibiting at Voces/Voices of the People, a group exhibit at Avenue 50 Studio in the historic Highland Park area of Los Angeles. The show opens on Valentine’s Day: Saturday, February 14, 2015, with an artists reception from 7:00 to 10:00 pm. The exhibit’s press release states the following; “Artists are usually at the forefront of a struggle. 2014 has given us a plethora of struggles to think about: black lives matter, LGBT equality, immigration reform, sex/wage slavery, gentrification.” Ave 50 Studio invited a number of L.A. artists to “visually discuss the issue(s) most prominent in our world.”

No doubt my fellow artists will contribute paintings that throw a spotlight on various socio-political problems, but also efforts to solve them. The show includes works by Andres Montoya, Derrick Maddox, John Urquiza, Patricia Payne, Richard Turner, Frohawk Two Feathers, Eric Almanza, Norm Maxwell, and of course, yours truly.

"Masked" - Mark Vallen 2015 ©. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 11 x 15 inches.

"Masked" - Mark Vallen 2015 ©. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 11 x 15 inches.

Two of my recent works are included in Voces/Voices of the People. Painted in the hot colors of revolt, Masked, a small oil on canvas, depicts a firebrand in the midst of blazing turmoil. He represents all those who resist the headlong rush towards austerity, repression and war. I will also show my black and white drawing, Ayotzinapa Somos Todos (We are all Ayotzinapa), an image I transformed into a free downloadable poster now available to the world community via the internet. For those that attend the exhibit’s opening night, free signed copies of the poster will be available.

Voces/Voices of the People runs from Feb. 14, 2015 to March 7, 2015. Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, CA 90042. For directions and gallery hours see the Avenue 50 Studio website.

Work in progress: Portrait of a Woman

"Portrait of a Woman" - Mark Vallen. Detail of work in progress. Oil on canvas. 2013. ©

"Portrait of a Woman" - Mark Vallen. Detail of work in progress. Oil on canvas. 2013. ©

Lucian Freud: RIP

On July 20, 2011 famed realist painter Lucian Freud died in London at the age of 88.

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) held a major retrospective of works by Freud in 2003. Consisting of 110 paintings, prints, and drawings, it was the one and only exhibit held at MOCA that I was ever impressed with. While the exhibition was still running the co-editor of CounterPunch magazine, Jeffrey St. Clair, published a review of the show. Titled The Paintings of Lucian Freud: Flesh and Its Discontents, the essay is a close approximation of my own feelings regarding the artist. An excerpt:

” (….) from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic. Too much technique. And the concession must be made. Freud is very serious; his irony is dark and far from the flippant excretions of a Jeff Koons; and his is a master technician, cribbing from sources as varied as Egyptian painting and sculpture, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, Velasquez, Cezanne, Courbet and Bonnard.”

 Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

As if echoing St. Clair’s words the Chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Charles Saumarez Smith, commenting on the death of the painter, said that Freud’s passing marked “the end of an era”, and now that Freud is gone, “it is as though the figurative tradition has gone with him.”

Mr. Saumarez Smith went on to say of those artists who continue to carry the banner of figurative realism, “it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream.”

Naturally I beg to differ. While Saumarez Smith may believe Freud’s “surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form” to be a thing of the past, the discipline has outlasted the complete dominance of abstract expressionism; I have no doubt figurative realism will also survive the whims and excesses of today’s postmodernist art.

Social Realist Ben Shahn

Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney - Ben Shahn. Lithographs/1965.

Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney - Ben Shahn. Lithographs/1965.

Ben Shahn was one of my earliest inspirations as an artist. He believed art was “one of the last remaining outposts of free speech”, and his dedication to social realism led him to paint and draw the American experience of the 1930’s as he lived it. He captured the poor and the working class with his pen and brush, and his passion for justice caused him to create a series of 23 paintings on the subject of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Those works brought him to the attention of the great Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera, who hired Shahn to assist in painting Man at the Crossroads (the mural at Rockefeller Center in New York that would be destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller for political reasons).

Shahn’s war time anti-Nazi posters created for the US government were brilliant graphic works that set the standard for political poster art. Shahn continued to produce exceptional works through the 1960’s that denounced the Vietnam war and militarism. In 1964, after three young civil rights workers were slain in Mississippi by the KKK, Shahn made silkscreen prints praising the slain heroes Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (pictured above).

In 1949, before non-representational abstract art gained its place of dominance, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a conference where Ben Shahn and abstract artist Robert Motherwell argued their positions. In explaining why he considered realism the best way for an artist to reach an audience, Shahn said the following:

“I think any artist, abstract or humanistic, will agree that art is the creation of human values. It may have cosmic extension. It may reflect cosmic abstraction. But however earnestly it reaches out into the never-never land of time-space, it will still always be an evaluation through the eyes of man. It may deny but can never cast off its human origin. Trying to get away from content seems to me a little wistful—somewhat like Icarus trying to shed the earth. And at our particular point in history, it’s more than wistful; it appears almost to consort with those forces which would repudiate man and his culture as ultimate values.

We are living in a time when civilization has become highly expert in the art of destroying human beings and increasingly weak in its power to give meaning to their lives. I don’t know anyone on either side of the water or on either side of the political fence who has the slightest degree of optimism about the direction in which civilization is moving. It is peculiarly within the province of the artist to minister to man in the somewhat starved area of the spirit. It is for the artist to discover new truths about man and to reaffirm that his life is significant. In this sense, I don’t mind being called a ‘realist,’ because I believe that these are the realities, the content, which gives to art its stature.”

Courbet and the Realist Revolution

In 1848 the young French painter Gustave Courbet and a circle of dissident artists and intellectuals regularly met at a Parisian café called the Brasserie Andler. It was there after many lively discussions that the term “Realism” was first used to describe the style of art and literature the mavericks were striving for. The art establishment richly rewarded those who painted highly romanticized scenes of the well-heeled at work and play. But Courbet believed art must show life as it is, and advocated artists getting involved in the social issues of the day. The fact that he painted ordinary working people and peasants in naturalistic settings outraged the well-to-do. It should go without saying that Courbet had a troubled relationship with the art authorities of the day. In 1850 he wrote:

“In our so very civilized society it is necessary for me to live the life of a savage. I must be free even of governments. The people have my sympathies, I must address myself to them directly.”

In 1855, after his work was rejected by the Universal Exhibition, Courbet set up a tent outside the exhibit hall and held a one-man show he called Le Réalisme. The accompanying exhibition catalog he titled “Realist Manifesto”, a brochure that helped initiate the coming revolution in painting - Impressionism. Every working artist should embrace Courbet’s exemplary spirit of defiance, because while art has changed certain dynamics have not. We have a new entrenched art establishment that is every bit as elitist and distant from the people as the officials Courbet faced in his day. It is time to pitch our own tents in front of the edifices of the postmodern to announce the return of the painters.

To learn more about Gustave Courbet, I highly recommend T. J. Clark’s, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution.