The contemporary figurative painting revival is a multifaceted phenomenon. This spring Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York Citypresented a solo exhibition of works by one of the true believers of classical realism, Daniel Graves (b. 1949). In 1991 Gravesfounded the Florence Academy of Art, predicated on a “return to discipline in art, to canons of beauty, and to the direct study of nature and the old masters as the foundation for great painting.” Graves’s belief in academic tradition is reflected in his own training, which includes study at the Atelier Lack in Minneapolisand with Nerina Simi, whose father, the Florentine painter Filadelfo Simi, had studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme. The Ettinger show demonstrates Graves’s skills across a range of genres—portrait, still life, landscape and figure subject. Some handsome drawings, mostly in the Pierre-Paul Prud’hon manner, round out the selection. (All works are dated 2006.) Graves is adept at capturing the vibrancy of flesh, and this talent seems more effective in individualistic portraits, such as Johan (The Competitor) and Innocence, than it does in big allegorical set pieces, as in the diptych male and female of The Gift I and The Gift II.
According to Graves, “the classically trained artist selects from and arranges reality to fit his idea.” The generalized rocky cliffs and approaching dawn of The Gift belong decidedly to the topography of the mind. Iris works better with similar resources. If the rock the introspective nude woman perches on seems somewhat amorphous, the sky behind her makes a fine background for her elegant profile. Iris, Juno’s messenger, is associated with the rainbow in classical mythology, and the arc of prismatic color is subtly played against the stormy greys of the sky. Graves loosens up as a painter in his sky studies and finds dynamic movement in transient meteorological effects. Afternoon Sky builds a rollicking mass of bright white clouds over a muted blue landscape, while Approaching Storm shows us the billowing masses, this time tinged with a warm grey-brown, sailing above hills veiled by a downpour. September Sky plays with the rose, peach and mauve palette Frederic Church used for his spectacular dawns and dusks. A set of more modest landscapes—depicting fields, barns and country lanes in soft earth colors—has an attractive modesty. The plein-air practice of nineteenth-century painters, notably the works of Corot and his circle, adds another strain of influence to Graves’s work, primarily rooted in a fervent belief in academic craftsmanship and humanistic tradition. In the nineteenth century the academic figure and the Romantic landscape were separate enterprises, both capable of carrying moral and spiritual content and not necessarily tied to the more radical experiments of the avant-gardists. Whether today’s generation of realists can find a way of integrating these fields remains a question. Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, 119 Spring Street, New York, New York 10012. Telephone (212) 925-7474. On the Web at www.EEGallery.com. Florence Academy of Art, Via della Casine 21/r, 50122 Florence, Italy. On the Web at www.florenceacademyofart.com