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Classic Meets Contemporary

How do these artists follow (and break!) traditional rules of art in their paintings?

What makes a work of art contemporary? It is made in the present and, quite often, the artist challenges the existing conventions of art. Many contemporary artists adapt what they know about art’s historical themes, styles, and subjects in their own work. They explore traditional genres, such as still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, while providing new twists on established ideas.

What makes a work of art contemporary? That word means that an artwork is made in the present. Many artists today challenge the rules of traditional genres, like still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Each artist adds his or her own modern twist.

Cindy Wright (b. 1972), Red Delicious, 2015. Oil on linen,
53 1/8x63 3/4in. (134.93x161.92cm). Courtesy of the artist.

Compare this still life with Wayne Thiebaud’s Confections

Realistic and Rotten

Belgian artist Cindy Wright takes on the still life in her 2015 painting Red Delicious, above. As in many still lifes, fruit is front and center. But in her example, Wright’s subject is a rotten apple instead of a typical bowl of fresh produce.

Wright works in a hyperrealistic style, giving the decaying snack a level of detail equal to that of a photograph. Artists have worked in this style for centuries, capturing their subjects’ realistic qualities, especially before the invention of cameras. For many, their goal was to make the fruit look delicious. The wrinkled skin and white mold in Wright’s work do not make you want to take a bite. The artist includes a label, complete with a web address, rooting this image in the present despite its traditional subject and style. What statement might Wright be making about food today?

Belgian artist Cindy Wright experiments with still life in her 2015 painting Red Delicious, above. Like many still lifes, it features fruit. But usually the fruit in a still life is fresh and appealing. Wright shows a rotten apple in her work instead.

Wright gives the rotting fruit so much detail that it looks like a photo. Artists have used this style for centuries. But they usually aimed to make fruit look delicious. The wrinkled skin and white mold in Wright’s work do not make you want to take a bite! The artist includes a sticker on the fruit, like you see in supermarkets. It shows a web address. This detail lets viewers know the image is from the present.

Amy Sherald (b. 1973), She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves, 2017. Oil on canvas, 54x43in. (137.16x109.22cm). ©Amy Sherald.
Image courtesy of Amy Sherald and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

How does Sherald make a statement about contemporary life in this portrait?

Portrait With a Point

Portraits typically capture the subject as he or she appears. American painter Amy Sherald, however, adapts the genre to say something new about race in her home country. In the 2017 portrait above, the subject’s grisaille, or gray-scale, skin is reminiscent of a black-and-white photo. The vibrant clothing and pink background contrast with the figure’s monotone face.

Sherald wants “to exclude the idea of color as race” in her artwork. The artist hopes this will help viewers base their observations of the subject on the bright, dynamic composition rather than the color of her skin.

Artists often want the portraits they make to show subjects the same way they appear in real life. American painter Amy Sherald uses the genre to share messages about race in America. In the 2017 portrait above, she paints her subject’s skin using gray shades. The colorful clothing and pastel background contrast with the figure’s gray face. Sherald hopes viewers see the bright, interesting composition and notice more than the subject’s skin color.

Thomas Eggerer (b. 1963), Yellow Harvest, 2012. Acrylic, oil, and carbon on canvas, 79x90in. (200.7x228.6cm). ©Thomas Eggerer, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London.

Which details make this painting a landscape?

Vast Sketchy Space

Thomas Eggerer experiments with new ways of rendering space in his 2012 Yellow Harvest. The German painter eliminates many elements that appear in a typical landscape. He doesn’t include a horizon line or other identifying objects, such as trees, creating a confusing sense of space and scale. Broad, diagonal gray bands pull the viewer’s eye into the background, suggesting abstract roads and adding depth to the scene.

Eggerer adds figures who appear to be working hard in the vast space. They are engaged in a variety of activities, bending to pick whatever they are harvesting, carrying heavy bags, and resting. Sketched figures appear as well, juxtaposed with the more finished characters in the scene. Like the way he renders space, Eggerer only hints at the figures’ faces, adding delicate shadows to represent their facial features. He creates a narrative within this landscape but leaves unanswered questions about where the scene takes place and who the figures represent.

Each of the artists featured here uses his or her knowledge of art history and tradition to create works for the modern world. What genres can you explore and make your own?

Thomas Eggerer experiments with space in his 2012 Yellow Harvest. The German artist doesn’t paint all the details that artists normally include in landscapes. For example, he doesn’t add a horizon line or trees. This creates a confusing sense of space.

Eggerer adds people who appear to be working. They pick crops, carry bags, and rest. Some characters are detailed, but others are only sketches. The artist hardly shows their faces. Instead he uses shadows to represent their eyes, noses, and mouths. Eggerer creates a story. But he leaves the viewer with questions: Where is this scene? Who are the characters and what are their jobs?

These artists use what they know about art history and tradition to create works for the modern world. What genres can you explore and make your own?

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