Subject is Secondary


Armand Cabrera


There has always been much made about the subject of a painting. Some subjects always attract the ire of judges and critics. This seems lazy to me; I think a painting should be judged on its emotional and technical merits regardless of the subject chosen by the artist.
Subject has always been secondary for me. It is just a vehicle for my expression of something more intangible. Even in portrait or figure painting it is more about the abstract qualities and the facility of the paint handling for me than the person or people in the image. Getting a likeness is more than just measuring.
It is the arrangement of color and value and shape that makes beauty not the subject. I am after the light in a scene or the assortment of colors a season has mixed up and presented to me. It is not so much a place as it is the underlying qualities that make that place interesting at a particular time of day or season combined with my emotional response.  In my opinion it is these things that make an image timeless and it is their expression I am looking for when I paint.

8 thoughts on “Subject is Secondary

  1. I've been following your blog for a while now, and I just love it. Thank you for all the good stuff you share, I'm a great admirer of your work !
    As for the matter of this post though I have to admit that I'm one of those who believe in the subject of a painting. I've been told once, that there are three things most important to a movie: the scenario, the scenario, and the scenario. You can have the best photography, the best lighting, the best acting performance even, if the scenario is not there, you don't have a masterpiece. Subject has got to be the center of the painting. Plus, the emotional factor comes directly from it, how can it be not immediately related to it?
    I am very sensitive to the technical merits of a painting of course, but the ones that I truly love are the ones that tell me a story that speaks to me. A landscape can be a promise: the sun rises, the wine will be good, the world is not at end, the place exists and I can dream to go there, etc…But it can also fail delivering that emotion just because it does not appeal to me. I will be much less sensitive to landscapes that depict part of the world I am not intimately familiar with. For instance I've always found "too" beautiful landscapes kitsch and unreal. I do not belong there, therefore I do not feel emotionally attached. Do I make sense?
    Timeless? What for? Timeless applies in reference to what's been already made. Timeless equals inserted in the past (I don't mean that in a bad way). What I mean to say is that whatever feels timeless today may not be felt that way in the future. Especially if someone comes along in the meantime, breaks the codes and becomes the new timeless, as it's been done so many times in the history of art. What say you?

  2. Thibaut,

    We disagree. In all great art, subject is just a vehicle for expression. It is the envelope the letter is delivered in. In writing Hamlet, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein; these works of art carry a message wrapped in historical or contemporary trappings. It is the same for painting, in my opinion. When you speak of kitsch, you focus on subject, plenty of bad paintings of cute peasant girls or women on the beaches in white dresses but the reason they fail is there is nothing but subject. When subject is not the vehicle and becomes the message and it leaves us empty wanting more. When there is truth and a deeper meaner or insight, subjects are elevated to art.

  3. Armand, do you like any abstract art? Based on posts of yours I have seen in the past, you generally don't (perhaps I am just assuming though). Abstract art is completely free of subject, so I am merely curious how you feel it fits into these thoughts.

    Separate from that question, I generally agree with you. Van Gogh is my favorite painter, and the way he painted clearly elevated any subject he painted beyond what he was looking at.

  4. Ari,

    I like some non-representational art, not much. In my opinion most of it lacks intent, leaving the viewer to fill in its purpose, what the artist was too lazy or incapable of doing. I think Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and work by Georges Braque have merit.

    The key for me is that art displays the artist’s ability to communicate their ideas effectively and they have the courage to leave something of themselves in the work and display a singular vision. If you have to read about it to understand it the artist has failed. It isn’t so much about the style although I have my preferred tastes.

    I’m not saying art can’t be fun or light hearted. I just think when one throws around the word Art with a capitol A it has to be held to a higher standard. It can’t just show facility and then waste it creating doe-eyed peasant girls or their modern equivalent. It can’t be devoid of all facility and intent; for it to be art it must transcend the mundane and banal. That takes hard work and commitment by the artist. Very few people will achieve this in their lifetime. To the degree an artist succeeds at some of those things is what brings their work closer to that destination.

  5. I think the truth is somewhere in between, this is a communicative art in which you must have an audience. My goal as an artist is simple, to continue making art which means I have to sell works to be able to continue doing what I love. That is the discomfort and distraction that every artist must face

    As a artist I never perceive the subject but those abstract pictorial qualities that build up to an image, that is what intrigues me and excites me to paint that particular subject, it is an honest emotional response and in that way the subject chooses the artist.

    Choosing subjects, staging them and orchestrating them for emotional response is why you have bad paintings of cute peasant girls or women on the beaches in white dresses.
    The Chinese have an entire industry centered on subject based art work called
    “The Oil Painting Village of Darfin” where you buy oil paintings or commission any “pretty” thing you want and have it executed by very skill craftspeople.

    So the question is why is places like Darfin and painters that paint the same gimmicky images of cottages in rose gardens successful? Does that say subject is king? Otherwise that subject is decorative? Or does it say as representational painting re-establishes itself as a viable genre in contemporary art it is treated just like another commodity in a industrial-consumer culture? Either way it would imply that subject is commercial and if it sells capitalize it.

    The artist that will last the test of time, paint from experience and knowledge, knowledge being by definition a detailed familiarity with, or understanding of, a person, thing or situation. The subjects they chose naturally develop from this exchange not the commodity of their work.

    You can not stage that.

  6. Jim,

    I agree with you. But it isn't just representational art that falls into this rut. Go into most corporate spaces or eating establishments and you will see mass produced non-representational art filling the walls.

    The fact that someone sells their work doesn't keep it from being art anymore than the fact that someone doesn't sell their work makes it art. Writing proposals begging for grant money to make work so you don't have to sell it commercially isn't any better than hanging work for sale in a for profit gallery. The temptation for all artists is how to reconcile making art and then selling it. It is easy to slip into the trap of making art to sell as opposed to making art for sale.

  7. To be clear I am certainly not saying that this is a problem of representational art only.
    It is a inbred problem of post-modern art.
    They repeat the same subjects over and over, I guess because they have a linear concept of art history? But yet act as if everything is “new and shocking”??
    A recent piece by a art instructor from the local university was a large deck structure, exactly like the type you would have the weekend barbeque on, except for being in the center of a large gallery with dirt around it. It just seemed like a wimpy version of Dennis Oppenheims early installation works. And I am sure someone will buy this weekend home project for big dollars. Contemporary modernists have become so repetitious and tedious; there is just so much repeated mental masturbation I can take.

    Thanks for the topic and letting me rattle on, enjoy your writings and art.

  8. I think both points of view have some truth in them, but I'm inclined to agree with Thibaut to a large extent. Wyeth said "it's not the subject that counts, but what the painter brings to the subject" – but the spectator is only receptive to something that corresponds to them – only the spectator can supply receptive imagination or experience to make the painting their's? Well, I say that, but its a bit off the cuff – I'd better go away and think about it properly. My mind was running along the lines of their has to be a ""narrative"" (in the very widest sense) and that there has t be ""poetry"" (i.e. more than a depiction of reality, paintings are not photos… Good post – thanks for the food for thought. Jon

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