Saturday, August 1, 2009

Art history reflections: Kit Gentry

Fire Breather by Kit Gentry

Here is Kit Gentry’s response to the final art history homework assignment, in an email conversation with Dick.


I've been considering the homework assignment, regarding a closing statement. I was tapping away at it this afternoon, and ended up with the following few paragraphs, which I'll share with you early, since there are some unresolved questions here, and maybe you'll have something to add that can help me formulate a better presentation before the next class.

I think it's clear that I would tend to be classified most closely with the painters of the Baroque, and it's no surprise that most of my favorite painters are from that era. Like them, I frequently use dramatic lighting or similar "romantic" circumstances of light and atmosphere, I do not idealize my depictions of life, and I'm embracing a non-linear style of rendering that allows for lost edges and similar phenomena related to the behavior of light.

However, none of this proceeds from a personality that's susceptible to flights of emotionalism. Quite to the contrary, I have a highly rational personality and an appreciation for order and self-discipline. Some friends of mine regard me as the most rational person they've ever known. So we have a bit of a dichotomy here. If the Renaissance or Greek Classic periods are the ones most closely associated with a rational or cerebral approach to painting, then it seems that my work ought to be more linear and less romantic in quality. How, then, can my work be "Baroque" or "Romantic?"

And there's another problem that I have with this. We've learned that the rational, thought-oriented artists of history produced works in which humanity was idealized, while Baroque painting permitted the introduction of worldly flaws and natural appearances, even in religious characters. That's clear enough.

But, in my own experience, I've found that rationality and emotionality have led me toward exactly the opposite sets of respective conclusions in regard to real life.

It's always been my emotional side that has led me to assume that people are mostly good and worthy of idealization. But my rational side, guided by experience, has shown me that people are inherently fallible and that life is unavoidably tragic. I've had to apply rational thought to correct certain naive or childish perceptions regarding life and humanity - it requires a certain rational effort to abandon certain forms of wishful thinking and to accept certain forms of objective reality.

I've also had to use very deliberate, rational observation in order to perceive the subtleties of light and shadow that allow me to paint in a much more open, non-linear method. Although the results are more "romantic," the observational process is very rational and objective, allowing me to jump over some difficult hurdles of preconception. In earlier, less rational moments of my career, my painting style was much more linear and tight, because I wasn't really thinking as clearly about what I was seeing - I wasn't observing it as consciously as I do now.

So, all in all, rationality has allowed me to defeat a variety of faulty preconceptions - and the artistic results have been more romantic, dramatic and colorful, not less.

But these connections between rational thought and style of work seem oddly reversed in the history of art, leaving me uncertain about my place in the scheme of things.

If all of the "romantic" works were as indulgent as Fragonard's stuff from the Rococo period, I wouldn't be as confused. But much of the emotional work, like that from the Baroque, actually seems to have a more realistic perception of the content of real life than work from the more intellectual periods such as the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, we instead get idealization - a sort of Utopian view of humanity. But this seems strangely inconsistent with actual human nature. It seems to me that people do the most idealizing when they are the least governed by rationality and wisdom.

By the way, I'm circulating a petition to have the works of Fragonard expunged from the historical record. Just let me know if you'd like to sign it. I can't imagine that you would like that "Swing" painting any more than I do...

Dick Nelson replied:

I'm not surprised that you would be the one for whom such an assignment hits a responsive chord. You are not alone with such a dilemma. As for "something to add..." I must excuse myself, for as much as I would want to wade in, that's not to this time. Delayed closure? Maybe. More when next we meet on the playing field. I can say this. Whether your issue is ever fully resolved is not as important to me as what I see in your work and in this statement. You possess those qualities which, for me, separate a painter from an artist. We have a number of calendar illustrators on this isle, but you cannot be counted in their number. Your work reveals far more than the skin of the onion.

Kit responded:

I've been giving further thought to the ideas that I was discussing in my first note, and it seems to me that I gravitate toward the Baroque material because that stuff is actually very well balanced between head and heart. It would be ridiculous to say that the work of Caravaggio or Vermeer or Velazquez was anti-intellectual in quality - obviously, all of those works are filled with signs of intensely rational planning and decision-making, and they exhibit monstrous leaps forward in visual understanding. It would be equally preposterous to say that they're anti-emotional, since they're self-evidently loaded with emotionally stirring and dramatic qualities. They seem to achieve a nearly perfect balance between thought and feeling, and that may explain why they have such a widespread and timeless appeal.

If anything, my work tries to achieve such a balance, and this is why I was talking about trying to select the best of everything from various types of work.

I may have told you this story before, but when I taught a drawing class at the Hui a few years ago, I noticed a page of text attached to a bulletin board in the classroom. It was supposed to be some wise essay about art, and the opening sentence read as follows: "Art is an endeavor of the soul, not of the intellect."

On the first evening of class, I displayed this essay and read the opening statement, and then I told the students, "If any of you believe this statement, then I won't be able to teach you anything in this class." The whole idea of denigrating the role of the intellect in art, as if it were some sort of hostile faction that needed to be defeated, seemed like the dumbest idea I'd ever heard.

On the other hand, my work is clearly not a celebration of the mundane, since I like to see dramatic environments and circumstances in my pictures, and that's all in the interest of drama, which is ultimately emotional and not very quantifiable. But whenever intellect and emotion get out of balance with one another, either in one's art or in one's self, the result seems very thin and insubstantial.

By the way, I was very flattered with your complimentary words concerning the substantive qualities that you perceive in my work, and I thank you very much for that. I wonder if you've seen the latest addition to my website, a new section that brings together my own writing, photography and artwork to present an artist's statement. If you really want to peel away at the skin of the onion, this would be the place to do it:

I'll be curious to see how you respond to this presentation. I'm almost reluctant to share it with anyone, because it's a very experimental thing and I'm not sure how it will come across. Artists' statements can be so full of rubbish, you know. I hope that mine is not, but maybe it is and I just can't see it because it's mine. You have the experience and wisdom to know for sure.

Kit Gentry