Refiguring Texas Realism

My Days Are a Handbreadth, 2011, Ron Cheek

Ron Cheek, whose show “Refiguring Texas Realism,” is on view August 30–October 21, 2012, at Texas A & M University, takes artistic freedom to mean responsibility to what he paints and mastery of technique.  He has schooled himself and others in the old-master crafts of drawing, portraiture and the figure.  His Texas Academy of Figurative Art, where artists are trained in the rigorous observation and technique of the classical tradition, is perhaps the first such institution in the state, a counterpart to Jacob Collins’s important Grand Central Academy in New York City.  Cheek’s studies at the Florence Academy of Art connect him directly with the great inheritance of European classical art, while his work in Colorado and Texas gives him the sense of light and freedom—and the down-home realism and sense of humor—that characterize the American West.  He is also a serious thinker beyond the world of painting and contemporary art theory: his academic work in environmental design, psychology and theology gives him ways to shape intellectually the emotional content of his art. 

Woman With a Burden, 2010The show features several major figural works, mostly deep allegories of the human spiritual condition, all in a brilliant white light against black backgrounds with a limited but striking palette. They are like the works of the Spanish and Latin American religious masters, with their concentration on emblematic props such as the apple, the hourglass and the skull, and the intense introspection of the confessional.  His still lifes—such as My Days Are a Handbreadth (2009), Of Whom the World Is Not Worthy (2009–10) and Vanity, Vanity (2008), which are actually self-portraits, with the strongly lit objects making up a symbolic picture of a mental state.  That mental state is a sense of huge aspiration, both painterly and spiritual, tempered by a wry sense of failure, imperfection, need and gratitude. 

Cheek is part of a movement known as “visionary realism.”  It is "realistic" in that it acknowledges a real world out there, a world that is not merely a social construction or a figment of one's own psychology.  That real world can be the world of nature, or a divine or demonic or spiritual world behind or within nature, but the artist deals with our relationship with it by making images that evoke, describe, imitate or praise it.  Certain implications flow from this definition.

Since the realist artist has a responsibility to the real world, he or she must invest effort in technique and craftsmanship, so as to adequately express the truth of that world.  The real world includes whatever spirits and intentions may dwell in it and whatever meanings it may embody, as partly guessed-at in the world’s religions.  As it is given to an artist to experience such spirits and meanings, the artist should express those truths, too. The artist must be committed to beauty, for why else would he or she wish to represent reality?  There are indeed kinds of beauty that are dark, shocking, and unfamiliar, as well as pleasing and pretty. Because the real world is larger than the artist, a certain quality of reverence is implied by the "realist" label. This is not to say that such art must be grave and serious: a realist artist's responsibility might well be to depicting the delightful silliness of nature and human nature, the effervescent joy and lighthearted absurdity of the world.  But that joy and silliness and absurdity must be bigger than he or she is, and thus to be reverenced in the very process of its depiction. The project of communicating an experience of the real world involves a concern with the common codes of perception, understanding and value that all human beings possess, and thus implies a kind of morality, a contract or set of promises between artist and viewer.  There is an arbiter—the real world  itself—that will test and reject any special pleading. If truth is a correspondence between a representation and the facts of reality, the realist artist is committed to truth. The facts could be very strange indeed; but medieval painters who depicted the   miracles of Christianity or the inner spiritual reality of morally significant events were not fantasists, but painters of what they saw   with the inner eye of the  spirit.   

Vanity, Vanity, © 2008, Ron Cheek

Unlike other important Texas artists, Cheek is not primarily a landscapist.  Indeed, his backgrounds are often a mysterious void, out of which the intensely real figures and conscious faces of his subjects emerge with a sort of radical suddenness. Even indoors, however, the sense of the autonomy and freedom of all the inhabitants of the world, a leitmotif of Texas painters’ understanding of regional light, is present.  That luminosity has gotten into his figures.

Falling Man, 2010, Ron CheekThe human figure never loses its dignity in Cheek’s work, because it is always recognized as capable of surprising us and itself.  One of Cheek’s self-portraits, Lazarus’ Dream (2008), both apocalyptic and whimsical, depicts him as the risen Lazarus snipping a tiny scrap of fabric from his shroud with a pair of scissors.  In a new major triptych, Eve is depicted with a plucked but uneaten “forbidden fruit,” a Mandarin orange, surveying a cute but obviously dangerous goateed Adam in an “I heart NY” t-shirt. The little girl angel with the sword isn’t paying attention.  The point is, unlike in much fashionable contemporary art, the painter does not consider his subjects as subject to social or biological automatism, but vitally in charge of themselves and driven by their own spiritual dilemmas, rather than by sociocultural conventions. 

Though by no means a pious artist, Cheek does have a religious sense of a human being’s inner spiritual life.  His portraits and nudes, though not beautiful in a conventional sense, have a beauty of personal willed presence.  Their subjects do not seduce or hector the viewer in some kind of attempt to gain power—always a sign of weakness—but remain self-possessed, as befits souled beings.  Cheek’s exquisite still lifes are energized with that quality the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “inscape” and recognized as the quiddity and individuality that was the sign of the divine. Wayne Stark Galleries, 1120 Memorial Student Center, Texas A & M University,College Station,Texas 77843. Telephone (979) 845-8501. Email uart@uart.tamu.edu

—Frederick Turner