Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Rebirth of realism

Selection of local artist Lori McNee Watson for prestigious oil painting show highlights a growing m


McNee Watson?s selected still life ?18th Century Kutani,? is at the Dana Gallery of Missoula, Montana.

Lori McNee Watson doesn't have anything against modern art; it's just not what she likes to paint.

Watson has known this for at least 20 years, since she was a disenchanted art student at San Diego State University. The school's modernist art department did not teach realistic painting and Watson, a traditionalist at heart, found herself lost.

Out of frustration, she switched majors and relegated art to the realm of hobby. Watson never lost her passion, though, and after years of apprenticeships with established Western realists, she is only now (since raising a family) reaching the high point of her artistic career.

Last weekend, Watson traveled to the Oil Painters of America (OPA) Convention (, held this year in Missoula, Mont., where one of her works was selected for the 15th Annual National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils. Submitting artists are able to present just one work for consideration to the OPA panel, which selects 200 finalists from a field of over 1,000 entrants. Watson is on a streak with the OPA; she had a work selected at last year's convention in Chicago.

Watson's Missoula entry, "18th Century Kutani," is a classic still life, tweaked with a Japanese aesthetic.

"I knew there was an OPA judge who likes Asian art," Watson said. The painting depicts a Kutani period Japanese vase that Watson purchased from a dealer on the auction web site Ebay, a regular source for her Asian vessel needs. In the painting, willow sticks poke from the painted vase and a detailed chickadee sits perched on one branch. Overall, her brush skills shine through a realist scene presented with loose, soft lines.

The naturalistic, sharp focus chickadee is the exception to her soft-edge rule. Watson has painted detailed animals for years, even producing a number of duck and trout stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.

The strong background of "Eighteenth Century Kutani" truly glows and it was this soft, radiance that set Watson's work apart from the hundreds in Missoula.

"My paintings are all about the way light travels across the scene—I'm looking for an ethereal glow."

As a selected finalist, Watson is also a member of the OPA, which bills itself as "the largest organization in the United States dedicated to preserving and promoting excellence in representational oil paintings."

The OPA, and bodies like it, are signs of a growing interest in realistic art, a backlash against modernism's long held dominance in the art world. As Pollack and DeKooning gained world-fame, abstract art became the 20th century's defining movement. While this pleased countless academics, critics and progressive aestheticians, large numbers of artists like McNeee Watson quietly yearned for a return to traditional realism.

Fred Ross, the keynote speaker at the OPA's Missoula convention, is the founder and chairman of the Art Renewal Center (ARC), an online museum and community for traditionalists (

Like the OPA, the ARC works as an advocate for realist art through salon competitions and even accrediting certain international schools as ARC certified. Currently, ARC recognizes 63 programs, with over 2,000 art students worldwide.

The ARC, which regularly refers to modern art as a "fraud," is not shy about its anti-modernist mission. However, Ross has a steep hill to climb to fight the dominant hegemony of modernist academics, artists and collectors.

In his address to a rapt OPA audience in Missoula, Ross paraphrased the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saying, "Artists are born free, but everywhere are in chains." Speaking 50 years ago, this would have been heard as a call to free modern artists from the confines of academic drawing. After a 50-year deconstruction of classical techniques, though, Ross claims that today's artists find themselves in a new predicament: shackled by modernist dogma. Indeed, in most American university studio art departments, the pressure to paint in abstraction is as strong as was its realistic opposite 150 years ago.

The philosophy of traditional art education underpinning today's realist movement is straightforward: "Only with mastery of one's medium is there any realistic possibility of artistic freedom, of creative expression, and of the attainment of excellence in the fine arts ...," the ARC Web site states.

Watson could not agree more. Ross speech, she said, "corroborated and validated everything for me." While she appreciates and owns pieces of modern art, Watson rejects "shock art," or art intended to disturb the viewer. She found camaraderie in Missoula, where she met countless like-minded artists.

Ross' ARC has proven just how many people, worldwide, have been turned off by contemporary shock art and are nostalgic for traditional forms; the Web site now receives approximately 5 million visitors each year, roughly the same number of people who visit New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art annually.

Watson, who is represented locally by Ketchum's Kneeland Gallery, sees it as a growing trend: "Traditional art is a comfort to people in these chaotic times ... I think people are finding refuge and solace in familiarity."

For her, producing art is more than a simple aesthetic exercise. It's an active statement of her values.

"I feel that the trend to discount our rich traditions not only affects the arts ... but is also a dangerous trend that is echoed in our communities and country."


Realism—The realistic and natural representation of people, places, and/or things in a work of art.

Modernism—A 20th century art movement characterized by deliberate departures from tradition and the use of new forms of expression.


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