Realism Returns to Mainstream Art World

Christian Vincent is a perfect end-of-the-millennium artist.

The Los Angeles-based painter's works evoke art from across the centuries, from Bible themes to the skill of the Great Masters. Yet, the central dilemmas of his canvases are profoundly of the post-industrial moment: How do we deal with the overload of information visited upon us by the communication age? Is learning between the generations possible in a fragmented, alienated society? Can we turn back the clock?

The nostalgia for a simpler time, the melancholy over the compromises of modern life - these also echo the concerns of many 20th-century artists such as Edward Hopper. Mr. Vincent's choice to work with realistic imagery represents a new direction within the mainstream of many of today's young artists.

"We're starting to see many young artists exploring figurative work, seeing if they can make a contemporary statement," muses Robert Fishko, director of the Forum Gallery in New York. Mr. Fishko explains that while realistic painting has never completely disappeared from the art world, throughout much of this century it often has taken a back seat to other approaches.

Now, after a decade of intensely issue-oriented minimalism and deconstruction, Fishko observes that the mainstream art world is in a figurative art cycle. "What it boils down to is [that] people are tired of art that has very little content, that lacks a direct emotional appeal. They don't want to have everything explained like crazy to them."

Vincent's work, he adds, has focused on that central emotional impact from the start.

"I have a longing for another time," laughs Vincent, a larger-than-life man whose paintings loom even larger. "I have a deep melancholy for a world in which things make sense, they don't move too fast." His work, a skillful homage to the Great Masters of chiaroscuro painting (the Italian term for "light and dark"), in the service of modern, lost souls, is saturated with a world-weary quality.

And in a perfect coda to an art world that has deconstructed visual reality about as far as it can go (how much more minimal can you get than a perfectly white Agnes Martin canvas?), Vincent looks deep into the art of the ages, brings it to bear on today's deepest-felt angst, and attempts to craft a vision of the future.

Lawyer and collector Robert Avery says it is this compellingly accessible emotional quality that makes Vincent's work a must-have in his home. He says the large canvas that hangs in his living room is a "wonderfully emotional presence."

"I like to be moved immediately," agrees his wife, Ann. "I don't want it explained to me. And I don't like those hard, unemotional lines of so much contemporary art."

Is this a genuine forward movement or just another public reaction against being asked to stretch? Gallery owner Fishko muses, "Who's to say what's genuinely modern? Just because you can recognize faces, does that disqualify it as contemporary?" Look at the quintessential realist, artist Chuck Close."

It has to do with the quality of thought, the power of the statement, the collector points out, not realism versus abstraction. On that question, the canvases of Christian Vincent, some of which already sell for upwards of $60,000, are as contemporary as anything else on today's scene, Fishko says, "figurative or not."

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