Stylization: avoiding a shortcut to disaster

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WITH altogether too many artists, stylization is a shortcut to disaster, a counterfeiting of style that lacks authenticity and character, and that is generally willing to sacrifice almost everything for immediate and occasionally superficial effect. It's often a convenient device for jumping to formal conclusions before all the facts are in. Even when reasonably successful, its insistence on manner over substance tends to bring it closer to decoration than to art and to make it subject more to the vagaries of fashion than to the standards of significant cultural attitudes and ideals.

The problem lies largely in its oversimplification, its emphasis on rhythmic, rigidly controlled patterning that leaves little if any room for the rich textures, details, inconsistencies, and resonances of life. It frequently becomes a sterilizing process, a limited artist's way of substituting method for creativity, of forcing something vibrantly alive to conform to half-baked theory.

It has, of course, produced some interesting and handsome results, especially among the more recent of the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, the Persian and Indian miniaturists of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Japanese woodblock artists of the late 19th century. But this only occurred at the point where the styles the artists represented were already quite old and pretty much taken for granted by the younger generations. In their hands, what had once been profoundly original very often became mann ered, what had once embodied true style became largely stylization.

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The better Western artists of the past century have been fully aware of the dangers of this approach and have, with a few exceptions (Puvis de Chavannes, Georges Seurat, Maurice Denis, and the later Juan Gris, Balthus, and Marc Chagall), left it strictly alone. A few others, however, confronted the issue of stylization head on (much as Matisse tackled the stigma of decoration with all the force of his genius), and emerged as artists of considerable weight.

Will Barnet is probably the best and most interesting American of this group. Utilizing a degree of stylization that would easily have defeated a lesser person, and taking full advantage of his extensive experience with both ``realistic'' and abstract styles, he has produced a large number of paintings, drawings, and prints that make a virtue out of what is often a weakness in others.

He has accomplished this by respecting the laws of both reality and design, and by maintaining a very calculated and near-perfect balance between observation and imagination. His dramatically simplified forms and compositions represent a thoughtful distillation and enhancement of reality, not an evasion of it, and certainly not a fanciful substitution for it. Anyone doubting this should study his drawings, both those that exist as independent sketches and those that serve as preparatory studies for his paintings.

In either case, he is as much concerned about his subject's individual character and appearance as about its linear structuring or potential as a crucial design element in a composition. A study of a child, cat, or tree is first a study of a particular child, cat, or tree, and is modified only to exaggerate certain rhythms and patterns when its identity is fully established. A few of his best drawings, as a result, represent a rare fusion of linear elegance and physiological and psychologi cal characterization.

Once a painting is begun, Barnet is extremely resourceful at marshaling his formal and technical means. Everything is kept in balance, is given its apportioned space, emphasis, color, and tone within an overall compositional plan that leaves as little as possible to chance, but that remains flexible enough to accommodate anything interesting that might come up.

He is unusually effective at producing the precisely appropriate authenticating detail needed to fully ``verify'' a particular form or figure, or to give verisimilitude to a landscape. This can be an exquisitely drawn hand or gesture whose effect is so dazzling that it animates the more frankly stylized areas around it -- or a head so full of character and life that it gives depth and conviction to everything near it.

Just as important, he knows how to create delicate transitions between realistic details and more generalized forms, causing the viewer's eye to respond in many subtle ways to Barnet's highly sophisticated and almost musical linearisms, as well as to his holistic vision.

To fully realize this vision, Barnet has had to learn to simplify and to stylize in order to enhance, and has had to master the very complex process of distilling the essential and most telling from the profusion of perceptual raw material an artist encounters every day.

In addition, being something of a romantic, he has needed to shape a set of symbols capable of embodying the sentiments, moods, and intimations he so very much wants to share with others, and to do so in a manner that would not compromise the formal seriousness of his work.

That he has succeeded admirably at what he set out to do is a simple statement of fact -- as well as a reminder that talent, intelligence, and sensibility will almost always have the last word about what constitutes art.

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