In May, John Pence Gallery in San Francisco presented recent work by Jacob Collins, a major figure in the contemporary realism revival and founder of three influential teaching institutions: the Water Street Atelier, the Grand Central Academy of Art and the Hudson River School for Landscape. As an artist, Collins functions at a very high level of technical proficiency, and the results are on display in a variety of genres, including portraits, plein-air landscapes and drawings. The drawings are particularly good examples of elegant, incisive draftsmanship, enlivened by nuanced textures. Collins’s textural flair comes into its own in his oils, where he wields the brush with an ease built on rock-solid discipline. The challenge for artists who have reached this level of mastery is finding subject matter that galvanizes their imagination. Right now, the energy, for Collins, seems concentrated in two genres: the still life and the nude.
There are many ways to approach the still life, some—like the vanitas trope—freighted with symbolism, but the genre’s principal appeal may be the chance to work out visual problems within a restricted set of circumstances. Objects help us concentrate on getting the objective truth. The formal approach can lead to a focus on shape, proportion and the play of positive/negative space: Giorgio Morandi, among the modernists, and the contemporary realist William Bailey work in this classically cool mode. Other artists, attracted by the effects of light on three-dimensional forms, try to capture that quality with brushstrokes: Velàzquez and Chardin are the old master exemplars, and William Merritt Chase (before he succumbed to the bright colors of Impressionism) was a wizard at conjuring a silver teapot from tenebrous shadows. Collins’s Roses in a Silver Cup II (2009) is a superb example of this kind of still life. The simple composition provides a showcase for bravura brushwork. The cylindrical vase dimly reflects the surrounding room, with the brightness of the silver glimmering in a few deftly placed highlights. The translucent white blooms have pink and yellow undertones; like human flesh, they have a complexion. Crisp brushstrokes capture the light at the furled edges of the petals and blur into the brown background, in a just-visible halo of pollen yellow. The productive tension between verisimilitude and painterly surface is also impressive with a less glamorous subject. In Beets (2009), Collins performs his alchemy on a bunch of unprepossessing root vegetables, draped lankly over a plain brown table. The beets are still dirty, as if they had come from a farmers market; only the magenta streaks of the leaves’ stems and veins hint at the vibrant color under the matte surface. The background is mottled gray. Collins has made an honest and appealing painting out of humble subject matter. The avant-garde musician John Cage once advised that, if a thing seemed boring after ten minutes, think about it for half an hour. It’s hard to imagine reconciling the creative intelligence of Cage and Collins, but they both understand the principle behind this mantra: pay attention, to your craft and the world around you.
As good as the still lifes are, the strongest works in the Pence show are nudes, a mainstay genre of academic art. Collins’s whole aesthetic enterprise is rooted in that tradition and a belief in its fundamental relevance to art-making. By the end of the nineteenth century, the great machinery of the Academy had broken down. Formidable skills and legislated ideals were undermined by failures of imagination, and too often the upshot was denatured myths and prettified prurience. In their laudable attempts to recover the valuable tools of academic art education, the ateliers of the realism revival have not entirely avoided the trap of blandness. No one could describe Collins’s nudes as bland. The title of one Collins painting, Odalisque (2009), suggests the elegance and sensuality of Ingres, but Collins has a different approach to the architecture of the human body. Ingres deliberately attenuates feminine anatomy into languorous curves. Collins in Odalisque emphasizes the sharp edges of shoulder and hip. Lying on her side and looking out at the viewer, the model is stretched out nearly the length of the canvas. She looks monumental, the topography of her body like a mountain range, for all the intimacy of the twisted covers on the divan. Her wary intensity adds psychological depth.
Collins uses the textures of various fabrics to set off the glowing vitality of flesh. In Reclining Nude (2006), silky sheets are layered in bands of black, white and cream. The model turns her head away, showing us a glimpse of an ornate earring, and spreads out with a complete lack of coyness, with the frank eroticism of a Courbet nude. In neoclassicism, the flesh-and-blood body moves in the direction of the antique statue, an ideal, self-contained form kept at a safe distance. For Courbet, the body becomes something at once vaster and more intimate. Collins’s Candace (2006/09) is like that, a meditation on body as eroticized landscape. It’s an overhead view, with no horizon line. Despite the extraordinary verisimilitude of the figure, the composition is disorienting because the model lies diagonally across the canvas with her head near the bottom, her legs near the top. The rumpled sheets, with a lovely satiny texture, are arranged counter-diagonally, in a white/black/white pattern, locking in a striking abstract structure. This is a big (36-by-50 inches), bold painting that demonstrates painterly legerdemain but puts its dazzling effects in the service of something else—formal nerve.
Not all the paintings in the exhibition have the compelling raison d’être exemplified by Candace. John (2009) is admirably painted but does not command the same sort of attention. Another portrait/figure study, David (2006–09), has more going on. The thoughtfulness of the face, especially effective because mostly in shadow, adds individuality to the figure, which demonstrates muscular grace in repose. The plaster wall of the background is a painterly tour de force. With technique to burn and remarkable visual intelligence, where does Collins go from here? The old masters put craft in the service of a great tradition of myth and symbol. What Collins needs now may be a subject that challenges his imagination. John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com