Every now and then, you meet someone, if only in cyberspace, who enriches your life in a great way. That's my experience with artist Richard Thomas Scott. I saw his work online www.richardtscottart.com, was intrigued by it and decided that I had to try to chat with him. I'm really glad we did talk. If nothing else, Richard is about transcending limitations, not only on canvas, but in life. How can you not enjoy someone like that? Read our chat and find out what I mean.
MICHAEL: Hello Richard. Your work is very intriguing to me. What I've seen is very classical and elegant, yet there seems to be an ethereal, magical spirit that runs through it. The word "serendipity" comes to mind. Is this what you're trying to capture?
RICHARD: "Serendipity" would be a very good word for it. My work is deeply inspired by the world I see around me, but I'm more interested in what lies beneath it, what conclusions we can draw from it. The work of the magical realist Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is a great influence on my work. He has a way of beginning a story, rooted deep in the reality that we all share, yet somehow through his mastery of rhetoric and philosophy, he manages to convince us of the impossible. So, we find ourselves surprised at the end of his stories, questioning everything that we've accepted as concrete. Likewise, in my work, I feel a profound need to convey a world which is at first completely believable, yet subtlety manipulate the physics of the world within in order to illustrate certain transcendental questions about our relationship with identity, each other and the world around us ... but all in a way that is humanly meaningful and not simply some kind of coldly cerebral, self indulgent game.
MICHAEL: How do you translate all of that visually?
RICHARD: This often manifests itself through a painting as strange phenomena which often only reveals itself slowly over time - which could be something as minute as the impossible bending of light, a strange fog, a candle that is lit in reality but not lit in its reflection in a mirror. Is there an empiric reality which is entirely quantifiable or is it a subjective projection of our own perceptions? What does that mean in terms of our own mortality? These are some of the basic philosophical questions mankind has been wrestling with for thousands of years and are still wrestling with even in the field of theoretical physics, such as string theory and quantum physics. But, my hope is to make these questions individually poignant for the viewer, to communicate intuitively through the subtle visual language of painting and composition, rather than to hit them over the head with a didactic message like so much other contemporary work does today. Ultimately, I want to present to the viewer, just another human heart asking the same questions that they themselves might ask, struggling to find meaning in the world, just as they do.
MICHAEL: I find it interesting that so much of what you're saying is really open ended. You seem to be giving people freedom to form their own perception about your work. Yet so many people feel that they have to be art history doctoral candidates to relate to a painting.
RICHARD: Absolutely. The most important thing for me is that the viewer can personally identify with the piece in some way and that requires a degree of ambiguity. Of course, if there's not enough content in the piece itself, it does not lead the viewer to the emotional and conceptual content that you're interested in conveying... so it's a very subtle balance, like walking on a tight-rope. You have to point towards what you want to say and then let them fill in the blanks with their own stories, with their own life experiences... that's how it can become personally meaningful, personally moving. I'm really bored by the elitist, esoteric dialogue you find in so much art and art criticism today. It speaks only to a handful of critics and academics and not to the people - and that's why so many people feel alienated from art today. My work, in contrast, attempts to speak to the people in a poetic language that they can understand. But, I am also interested in more conceptual content, in fact I have done a great deal of study in that field - it's simply subservient to the emotive power of the piece. I hope to seduce the viewer into the painting and if they meditate on it for a while, they may discover deeper, more specific layers of meaning.
MICHAEL: I love what you're saying here. This is exactly how I relate to all works of art, whether they're emerging artists like you, Picasso or Giacometti or even the old masters.
RICHARD: All masterpieces are structured like this - there is something for the layman and something for the philosopher. Actually, as philosophically inclined as I am, I think the basic questions, with which everyone can identify, are the most profound. The more esoteric content is just a counterpoint to emphasize this and viewers can detect it intuitively even if they don't know the specific references I'm making. They can feel the meaning before they actually know any specifics of what the painting is about. I think we shouldn't underestimate the intelligence of the "layman" viewer. For instance, I recently went to Musée d'Orsay with a friend of mine and her three-month-old baby. And when she held the child near the paintings, he actually looked closely at them. If he liked a painting, he smiled and stared at it for a very long time. If he didn't like one, he simply looked away. There was an astonishing correlation between the amount of life, skillful emotive expression in the painting and his preferences. In my opinion, he had great taste. So, it seems to me that we're born with the ability to intuitively read the visual language of painting, but over the years, it's often taught out of us. That's not to say that people are stupid, but rather, that babies are smart because they have a human intelligence that is often conditioned out of us.
MICHAEL: I couldn't agree more. Just imagine how different the art world would be if that inherent understanding of art weren't conditioned out of us. I don't think there would be a struggling artist on the planet! How old were you when you became aware of yourself as an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
RICHARD: My first real encounter with painting came along with one of my first memories. I became dimly aware of these paintings at my grandparents' house and was simply captivated by them. I recall one in particular which resembled Picasso's rose period, though I don't think it was Picasso and I've never been able to find the image since. There was a toreador in orange checkered pants, waving a cloth while a bull charged. I remember being transfixed by the color, the brush strokes, the gesture... and I believe my family thought I was autistic the way I stared at that painting. None of them were painters, so I was kind of out of left field. My first painting, I believe, was when I was six, and ever since I've been drawing or painting. I had a lot of other interests along the way: in high school I was in a rock band, studied fencing, wrote poetry and performed in a number of plays and musicals. After graduating, I even made a brief foray as an actor in a made for tv movie. I don't think I had a concept of what an artist was until college. Before then, I never considered that what I was doing could actually be a career, but when I had to declare a major, the choice seemed obvious. I dabbled with installation, sculpture, printmaking, 35 mm photography, ceramics, but it always came back to painting for me - to the chagrin of my professors who told me what a promising conceptual artist I would be. And when I chose to paint the figure, well, it was like I committed suicide. They were horrified! I respected them and tried to take their advice, but I couldn't help but be drawn to the human form. There was something about the baroque light in the studio, the glowing of semi-translucent flesh, the rhythm of the limbs, the model's soul radiating through the room. I felt as if I were in a temple and painting this beautiful human before me, stripped of the context of class and culture, brimming over with our shared vulnerability, this was the conduit to the exalted sublime.
MICHAEL: Why were your professors so horrified about your choice? Also, what would you say art training has done for you that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise?
RICHARD: My professors were horrified because in art schools around the U.S and Europe, it's considered bad taste to paint the figure in a sincere way. They teach you that you must follow the fashion - the zeitgeist. You must clearly demonstrate to everyone that you are part of the time in which you live. Painting in itself is cliche enough, but painting realism and the nude ... well, "that's just been done before." You see, they have this concept of art history as being linear - wherein one movement evolves naturally into the next movement, and of course you must make "progress." You must be "modern" because in the modern age, human nature is supposed to somehow be different than it has been for tens of thousands of years. You must be "original" and "new". But there's a great quote by Robert Henri that I always come back to ...
"Don't worry about your originality. You couldn't get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do."
MICHAEL: I love artist quotes. Obviously, Henri is telling artists that they must respect their inner voice more than anything else.
RICHARD: I think the best advice is not to say "be original," or even "be yourself," but to say, "give it everything that is within you, don't take easy answers, explore your subject deeply."
MICHAEL: Yes. I find those art history professors' approach to teaching quite restrictive, but I guess they have to stick with the syllabus.
RICHARD: First of all, history isn't linear. Art historians simply arrange it that way in order to try to make sense of it and of course, in order to draw a line of influence leading inexorably to their favorite artists ... to give them more credibility. But every art history book revises history and gives more relevance to different artists. For example, when I first picked up an art history book here in France, I was shocked that I had never even heard of 50% of the painters. And I've studied art history extensively! So, at any given point in time, there are and have always been many important movements that may or may not be labeled as "influential". Art history is different depending on who you ask and so it's not set in stone.
MICHAEL: It's like having a selective memory.
RICHARD: As an undergraduate, I was beginning to read contemporary art magazines like Art Forum and Art in America. I realized very quickly that almost everything I saw in there was derivative. This idea of "new" and "original" seemed to be either irrelevant to these artists or conversely, perhaps people knew so little about art history that they thought something was new simply because they had never seen it before. For example, Duchamp's "La Fontaine" has been copied ad nauseum, yet each time it's called "original". The same is true for Malevich's "Black Square", Brancusi, Picasso, Warhol, Francis Bacon, Cezanne... for some reason, it's perfectly fine to copy modern art, but if you're even slightly influenced by the old masters, it's suicide.
MICHAEL: And so, what about your training? Were you indoctrinated?
RICHARD: As far as training goes, there are two different types of training that I've had. In undergrad art school, I learned a lot about talking about art ... about the concept and the context and all of that fashionable stuff ... art schools generally don't teach you "how" to make or do anything beyond the very basic, but I was lucky enough to have had two great professors who supported me and gave me a really strong technical foundation. When I later attended the New York Academy of Art, I learned many different historical techniques, anatomy and continued to build on my knowledge of theory and contemporary art. The three things I always focused on were technical skills, philosophy, and art history. My whole education has been self-directed, so I sought out specific professors along the way according to what I wanted to learn, but what universities and academies allowed me was the ability to quickly access the information and experience I needed and get pretty immediate feedback, and the opportunity to bounce ideas off of my fellow students. That speeds up the learning curve exponentially. I suppose I might have been able to acquire the skills and knowledge on my own, but it would have taken twenty years instead of ten. Likewise, when I was awarded a residency with Odd Nerdrum, I was able to bring all of this education to the table and it gave me the ability to really digest the vast amount of knowledge and experience that he has to offer. Finally, the art history, the technique, the philosophy, the anatomy and my passion - all blended into one and my work took a huge leap forward.
MICHAEL: What I'm hearing you say is that no single person or entity has ownership of art or art history. While education is very important, it can be hollow without the emotional, spiritual and ultimately personal relationship with art. Where were you when I was a kid? LOL. It's interesting that you've spent time with Odd Nerdrum. I LOVE his work and see the same wistful, folkloric magic in your work (or what I've seen of your work). How did he influence you?
RICHARD: I would say that's pretty accurate. Odd pushed me to strive for a masterpiece that would hold its own in any age, instead of just a painting that is great today simply by comparison to everything else. He taught me that we cannot only reach the old masters, but we can challenge them - which is really the greatest way to honor them. Interestingly enough, he never expected me to paint his style or subject matter, though he did emphasize the importance of timeless subject matter. Fashions change, politics change, but the universal human condition has been the same for longer than recorded history and this will always speak to people in a meaningful way. So, it's important not to be distracted by transient things such as technology and the media. Though I'm not saying we all have to paint pastiche and dress people up like the Renaissance fair (that's actually much harder to pull off) ... it's fine to use a contemporary setting or contemporary elements in a painting as long as they're used in a way that doesn't detract from the timeless aspect. But it's rather ridiculous to paint an iPad or something just so you can say, "See, this is 2011, I'm contemporary!" The bottom line is that you have to paint what you love and if you love people in Renaissance clothing, you have to own it and simply take it further. Nothing is off limits, but it needs to say something that you deeply care about. If you don't know what you want to say, at least on an intuitive level, the painting isn't going to say anything meaningful.
MICHAEL: You've done quite a few self-portraits. What's the motivation there?
RICHARD: Well, I'm a very cheap model, but also, I really like the challenge of trying to find a new interpretation on the subject. And ultimately, all paintings are self portraits - they're a kind of search for identity; they're about our interaction and communion with the world and people around us.
MICHAEL: Did you say earlier that you're in France? Paris? Do you live there? How does France influence you?
RICHARD: Yes, I live just outside of Paris. I think France has taught me that you can re-invent yourself. It has taught me that sometimes in order to speed up, you must first slow down. A balanced life does actually increase the quality of your productivity. In New York, I never had time to really think things through. We (wife) were just trying to survive. The pace was simply so fast and we always had to juggle so many things at once, that it was impossible to focus on one thing. That was great for making me competitive and driven, but it wasn't so great for being productive.
MICHAEL: Have you noticed any differences in how the French or Europeans in general view art compared to Americans?
RICHARD: One thing I've noticed is that there's almost no figurative painting in continental Europe - especially France. You have a few great painters in Italy, like Roberto Ferri and of course a handful in Norway, but not very many in France. And the ones here are getting no exposure. In the States, we have hundreds of very talented representational painters who are fairly visible, but European institutions, galleries and media are almost entirely dominated by installation, photography, abstraction, etc. In NY and L.A you find a mixture, but Paris has no figurative galleries like Forum, Hirschl & Adler or even Arcadia. Ca n`existe pas!
MICHAEL: Wow. That's intriguing. I thought Europe had everything.
RICHARD: That isn't to say that the people don't have an appreciation - to the contrary. The reception for my work in Paris has been incredibly enthusiastic. I've found that collectors and art lovers have much more respect for us here than in the States. And since the French never really appreciated the moralist, Germanic aesthetic which you find so predominant in contemporary art, they've been waiting and longing for beauty for the last fifty years. To finally see it again is a great joy for them. Take Lucien Freud, for example. I think some of his paintings are great, but he's not painting people with souls, he's painting empty shells. He's painting meat. That's fine, but it's the only way you're allowed to approach the nude today if you want any kind of critical success. I think the French culture has never lost that sense of human empathy, that sincere passion for life. So, I'm very encouraged.
MICHAEL: That's great. You know, it seems that the very top tiers of the art world are thriving again as the wealthy get wealthier and spend huge money on art. However, mid-level and obviously new artists are struggling as usual. Any thoughts about all of this?
RICHARD: Well, I have a lot of thoughts about that. The primary reason that the blue chip art market has recovered so quickly is because it's a safer place to put money than stocks and currency. Plus, being the largest unregulated market in the world has its advantages if you know how it works. As far as emerging and mid-career artists are concerned, we are at the cusp of a new age. The dynamics are changing rapidly in several different ways. The art world is becoming de-centralized with the Chinese market surpassing the U.S., London is a powerful market, so is Berlin, Paris, L.A, Miami ... it's no longer just about New York. I think there will never again be a "center of the art world," rather, many centers.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. I'm sure a lot of art folks are shaking in their boots.
RICHARD: Further, the power is shifting out of the hands of the galleries and into ours (artists) because we now have an unprecedented ability to bring our work straight to the collectors through the internet, which means we don't have to pay commissions. So, that's the key. Yes, the economy is still dragging its feet, but right now it's about positioning ourselves to be ready when it springs back and social networks and the web are an incredibly powerful and inexpensive way to do that. Of course, I still believe galleries are an important component, but they have to re-invent themselves in this new age. Something that would have been unheard of ten years ago ... galleries approach ME. But I have to consider if what they're going to do is worth the standard 50% commission. The new gallery-artist relationship is more collaborative and has to be if either want to survive.
MICHAEL: Well, collaboration can't be a bad thing, especially if both parties are equal which is how it should be.
RICHARD: All of this change leaves us figurative painters in a surprisingly strong position. What all of us have to realize is that the blue chip art market is not our market. The already established art critics are not our critics. Our market consists of a great number of people who feel alienated by the intellectual masturbation that is contemporary art ... these people would love our work if they only knew we existed. But they don't. So, they don't really even look at contemporary art because they assume it's all dildos and elephant dung. What we have to focus on are people who don't think of themselves as art collectors, but would buy our work simply because they love it. This kind of market exists to some extent already in the U.S, but not at all in Europe. So we have a huge untapped demographic.
MICHAEL: Now we're talking. Love it.
RICHARD: My point is that it's a waste of time for us to try to court the art world. The critics have already established their reputations talking about Bruce Nauman, Jeff Koons, et al ... so they will never write positively about us, to do so would be suicide. We have to build our own critics, our own historians - who speak to people instead of just each other. And all of this has been made, not only possible, but quite practical because of the internet and especially social networking sites like Facebook, which has completely re-invented my career.
MICHAEL: Richard, you have been preaching to the choir this entire time. Chatting with you has been great. I wish you much success and happiness in the future.
RICHARD: Thanks, it has been a pleasure.
To see Richard's work, visit www.richardtscottart.com.