What is Conceptual Realism?
Artist’s move away from art for art’s sake to change the world
Conceptual realism is not a difficult concept when it comes to art. To be conceptual realism, art needs to be realistic in style and have an idea behind it.
I say, “when it comes to art,” because the term has been used in other ways, for example, in philosophy. But that doesn’t concern us here.
Conceptual realism in art is a broad category that includes artwork from many different perspectives. The secret power of conceptual realism is that, by definition, artists who create this form of art are consciously or unconsciously rejecting many forms of modern and postmodern art, particularly the notion of art for art’s sake. Why? Because art for art’s sake is supposed to be devoid of purpose, or rather, it should not have an intended purpose.
Let’s take a look at some conceptual realist artwork to make clear what it is and what it isn’t.
This piece is by Guillermo Muñoz Vera. It is called Ophelia of the Ganges. You can see that it is painted in a realistic style. Note that the floating trash, however, is painted quickly. This distinguishes conceptual realism from photorealism and hyperrealism. These art forms would not permit this sort of artistic style excursion. That doesn’t mean that photorealism or hyper-realism cannot also be conceptual realism, far from it. It just means that conceptual realism does not have to be photorealistic. And photorealism does not have to have an idea associated with it; conceptual realism does.
Guillermo Muñoz Vera’s piece had an important message. Not all the ideas behind conceptual realism need to be profound. There are no rules about what makes a good idea for a conceptual realist painting or not. Feeder Fish by Elizabeth McGhee is an example of this. It is photoreal. The idea behind it is playful, like most of her work. But the idea is not necessarily profound.
Consequatur by Adam Burke was included in a show called “Ghosts of the Anthropocene.” It is a strong example of conceptual realism, but also of narrative art. He weaves symbolism into the art to tell a story. It’s not a linear story. it is a story that is woven together as the viewer experiences the art on different levels. Burke was explicit about the symbolism he was using when he wrote about the painting for the show. He said, “I used religion as symbology for humanity’s disconnect with nature…The figures are poking at the deer who has a bird–a nightjar–nest in the cavity in its hindquarters–humanity exerting itself on nature–the vultures are looming as symbols of death both to the natural world, and of course humanity as well.” Burke used the Latin word, “consequatur,” for the title of his painting. It means, “consequences.”
Narrative conceptual realism comes to full expression in the art of Adam Miller, who creates large scale, complex compositions. In paintings like Fall of Troy, in which the toppling of a statue draped with an American flag happens in the middle ground while a nude actress and a film crew are oblivious in the foreground. All this happens against a background of references to fallen states.
Miller, having spent a great deal of time in Florence, Italy, derives his inspiration from Renaissance painters, such as Raphael, who is well-known for complex compositions with figures. Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican is a good example of what inspires Miller. This painting and its message have been the subject of study for art historians for centuries.
I see my own work as conceptual realism. In this piece, for instance, which is one of a series of wildlife-based paintings about the current mass extinction crisis, I depict a mating pair of Northern White-cheeked gibbons. At first glance, the gibbons look real, but the audience knows immediately that something is wrong. The animals are distorted. In each of the paintings in this series, I deliberately distort reality. That becomes a metaphor for the distortion in nature that currently exists.
So, as you can see, conceptual realism is a powerful tool. Artists can communicate simple or profound ideas through it.
Is conceptual realism an art movement? I think not. Movements have explicit ideas or goals. Even though conceptual realist art implicitly defies the notion of art for art’s sake, one could not say that is what motivates all conceptual realists. Since the ideas behind conceptual realist art can really be anything, it is more an art form than a movement.
One can see, however, that many conceptual realist artists have strong ideas and take their work very seriously. They want to communicate with the world through their art by using narratives, symbolism, allegories, or any number of other visual tools.
In my view, these artists can be considered part of a movement. With so many challenges facing the world, artists are now collectively and loudly leaving art for art’s sake behind and using their art to draw attention to issues. They see themselves as having a role to play in helping to change the world dynamic. There is definitely a movement.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that we need a new synthesis that combines the advances art has made over the last 150 years with a new perspective for art that has a purpose. Is this movement of conceptual realists with important messages for the world The New Synthesis?
Some art critic will coin a term to name this movement. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is that artists are reengaging with the real world in a big way. Conceptual realism is one of their most powerful tools and it is sure to have a great impact in the coming decades.