Critical Essay

Exploring Northwest Realism

     "What is representational art? Why is there a revival of representation in the visual arts?

As a museum director and an art historian, I am frequently asked these questions.

     The first question is truly a twentieth-century one, because a hundred years ago it never would have been asked. Around 1900, art was assumed to represent something, and the critical discussions were about what was represented, how it was represented, and the relative skill of the artist in presenting the images. The development of non-objective and abstract art over the past century has changed those assumptions, so now we need a new definition. For me, in the twenty-first century, the term "representation" is a general one. It subsumes terms such as figurative, naturalistic, realistic, illusionistic, or mimetic that are often used in an attempt to classify kinds of representational art. The fact is that representation has nothing to do with style, medium, or subject matter. It has everything to do with intent. Webster's Dictionary makes it simple: to represent is "to present again." In effect, the artist of a representational work makes a covenant with the viewer "to present again" elements of reality in a new and meaningful way, whatever the subject. This "re-presentation" is only limited by the artist's imagination and skill, while still maintaining a visual connection with the original subject. In other words, a representational work of art is not hermetic or purely self-referential the way an abstract work is.

     The second question about the "revival" of representation is an interesting one because it assumes that representation somehow disappeared in the twentieth century. Actually, the practice of representation never went away as far as many artists and art lovers were concerned; it was simply ignored by the critical establishment, many art institutions, and the media for a variety of reasons; some were valid historical forces and others were dictated by passing fashion. What is exciting today is that younger contemporary artists, many originally educated as abstract artists, are rediscovering the traditions and relearning the skills of representational art, and combining them with postmodern issues-such as appropriation of art from the past or references to popular culture-to create a vital, meaningful new expression that communicates clearly and directly with the viewer.

     This vitality is what is attracting so many new artists and bringing viewers back to art exhibitions. In the pluralistic art world in which we now live, it's an exciting time to be an artist and an exhilarating experience to be an art lover."


© Richard V. West, Director Emeritus

Frye Art Museum, Seattle

2004 Juror, Art at the Port, Anacortes Arts Festival