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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Jacob Collins

Jacob Collins Teaching a Class
We talk a lot about art, everything from how to draw a head without first starting with a circle, to the existentialism of "art for art's sake." However, once we get past the first few formative years when art instruction is deemed to be so critical that parents and teachers alike tiptoe about as if afraid to step on the young art student's fragile egos, lest we destroy their creative impulses for life; we tend not to give much thought to "what" and "how" art is taught in the upper level classrooms of high schools and colleges. It's as if all that had been settled more than a hundred years ago when such instruction became commonplace in public institutions of higher learning. In any case, we often simply consider such advanced pedagogic philosophy as of little importance in the training of young, college-level students and post-graduates. Educators tend to think of such individuals as too "set in their ways" to absorb such instructional influences.
Alumni of New York's Art Students League, ca. 1950.
Yet our branch of history is full of young artists (above)whose style, content, and thought processes have been radically altered by outstanding teachers with exceptional influence over their protégés, whose pondering minds are much more open than we might think. Along the same line, another factor in upper-level art education which we don't often consider is that, just as in politics, we find both conservatives and progressives. Also, as in politics, there is a pedagogic spectrum binding these two extremes. Perhaps that's why colleges reward graduates with "degrees." To oversimplify somewhat, conservative art schools place heavy emphasis on skill development in working with live models, plein-air painting, and three-dimensional sources. Progressive schools emphasize the creative thought processes, and virtually unlimited sources, in producing art designed to move minds, assuming that any necessary art skills have developed or will develop individually as needed. This extreme is message oriented, utilizing often radical new ideas and controversial images to capture the highly limited social attention span. If the results are attractive, even beautiful to behold, so much the better, but that element is usually secondary. Progressives deem beauty to be a fortunate byproduct of creativity. Their art is forward-looking, while conservative art instruction is oriented toward creating art of great beauty at the expense of novelty. Akin to the Pre-Raphaelites of the late 19th-century British art, such instructional philosophy holds the Renaissance as the epitome of man's artistic achievement. Beauty forms an integral part of their definition of art.
The "learn to draw and paint" school of art where ancient beauty
rules and creative genius hopefully evolves as a logical result.
The New York artist, Jacob Collins, might easily be considered the foremost proponent of conservative art instructional philosophy. In fact, he has founded his own art academy (several times), the most recent being the present day Grand Central Atelier (GCA) dating from the 1990s. Although Collins and others might not admit it, conservative art instruction has as its basis a rejection of all that we've come to call Modern Art, which, by inference, is a whole-hearted, exclusionary embrace of Realism. Moreover, that's not just Realism as defined by the work of Corot, Courbet, Millais, and other Frenchmen during the mid-19th-century, but what they term "Classical Realism," as defined by the 16th century masters. As with politics, it's "wishful thinking" in fear of "innovative thinking."

Painting the classically posed nude figure makes up
the bulk of Jacob Collins' work.
Jacob Collins was born in New York City in 1964. Since receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College in 1986, he has studied at the New York Academy of Art, the École Albert Defois, and the Art Students League. He was the founder and director of the Water Street Atelier in Manhattan and has become an extraordinarily respected artist, teacher, and role model in the field of contemporary realism. Admirers credit him with combining a technique reminiscent of the nineteenth-century American realists with a freshness of vision scarcely encountered among today's traditional painters. Collins' works are praised for a rare unions of classic beauty and striking originality, meeting as harmonious equals.

The traditional still-life as seen by Collins
--perfection at the expense of meaning.
Collins studied art at a time when the Modern Art establishment held the reins, relegating representational artists to careers in illustration, or simply to produce their work in the shadows. Critics contend that Collins expresses the idea that art is painting something beautifully. In other words, art is little more than accurate representation. It's not interpretation, and its purpose is not to express feelings, emotions or meanings. Collins' Grand Central Atelier has sought to revive or follow, Renaissance ideals, which means the imitation of reality. So, when he talks about beauty, he doesn't mean the painting of a beautiful subject, but only a beautifully well-painted representation. Problems immediately arise with thise GCA definition and practice of art. GCA artists know how to paint, but they don't know what to paint. They have been taught to accepted the idea that art is anything you paint, any object, or slice of reality, as long as it is beautifully well-painted. Since this is obviously not what art is, and certainly never was for the Old Masters, accepting this view of art does not allow the artist to produce great works of art.

Collins' "Classsical Realism" reduces art to
an assortment of pretty pictures.
For most representational artists, the process of artistic creation begins with a source of inspiration, a photo, or something in the field of vision. It might be an idea that provides an expressive purpose and the source of meaning. Selectivity is thus an important part of the process. The artists selects the elements from whatever source that best satisfy their expressive purpose, then organizes and composes the picture plane to implement that purpose. The better the artist, the more the work of art is a recreation and an interpretation of reality, not a mere copy, as it is for GCA artists. Collins' work reflects this copyist mindset as does, unfortunately, that of his students in their attempt to short-circuit the whole creative process by minimizing the importance of selectivity, eliminating the need for expression, meaning, and interpretation. The result is a banal, mediocre realism that never aspires to anything better. It expresses nothing, means nothing, and reflects nothing.

Mere faces by formula, or sensitive portraits?

Father and son in the studio--
an apt subject ignored.


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