Monday, November 8, 2010

VIEWS ON THE EVERY DAY: Roy Lichtenstein and Ralph Goings

“A beautiful painting can be made of anything —
ordinary, uninteresting, or whatever.” —
Ralph Goings

At the start of this semester, while visiting New York, before even thinking about this investigation, I felt fortunate to have been able to see the Lichtenstein still life exhibition last June at the Gagosian Gallery. Having mostly known Lichtenstein for his comic book strip paintings, his still life paintings provided me with up-close information on the materiality of his work – the use of strips and Ben Day Dots that create the painted yet illusionistic look of mechanically produced and printed works. Also included in the exhibition were small quick sketches using pencil and paint that provided me with detailed information not only about the development of his working ideas but information about his skill as a painter. The sketches were minimal yet vibrant gestural jewels. For this project the challenge in looking at the life’s work of painters Roy Lichtenstein and Ralph Going was to pick one painting from each artist that would be representative of their work with the hope or intent of having a conversation about their key roles in the genre of painting within Pop Art and Photo Realism. Their visual language weaves a similar thread where in lies their mutual love of the everyday object. Each artist through the use of mechanical devices, canvas and paint, depicts a narrative about contemporary society and more importantly what one could perceive as representations of American culture and the dream of utopia.

Pop Art and Photo Realism, more alike than not, share a common desire to understand what differentiates High Art from Low Art and additionally to address what the artists perceived as the commoditization of art. Artists painting within Pop Art and Photorealism were driven to investigate and question the galleries, collectors, and museums. They juxtaposed notions of high art against common print marketing propaganda within the subject matter of their works and in the process defined what was happening with in popular culture and mass media advertising. This investigation provided a view into the social and economic post war America. Largely these stylistic approaches’ were in response to America’s booming post war consumer culture. It was during the 1950s and 1960s that advertising agencies developed unprecedented, highly designed, narratives. The overall consistent message was that anything could be made better, along with the idea and assumed promise of a higher quality of living and better way of life. Though Lichtenstein and Goings process, primarily defined by materials and subject matter differ greatly on many levels, each speaks to the every day common and most banal representations of American life.

Lichtenstein looked no further than newspapers, comic strips, magazines, telephone books, along with well known works by other artists which were reproduced in print media, as his starting place for his often larger than life works. Lichtenstein’s initial idea was to use works created by a commercial artist and whose works were not perceived as art but non-art. Lichtenstein stated his desired effect was, “I’d always wanted to know the difference between a mark that was art and one that wasn’t.” In Lichtenstein’s investigation, and to get his paintings right and have a high level of integrity in his painting process, he used what was called the Ben Day Dot, a process developed and used in commercial printing applications. With extreme accuracy he painted, using countless individual dots on his canvas, painting with oils and the limited palette used in actual printing process. He was able to paint the printing process in his paintings. This gave his work consistency and in addition gave the viewer the information which had been provided in his original source. Not only was painting the printed process important to the authenticity of his work but gender identification used in advertising was an important aspect of Lichtenstein’s work. For example, in Step-on Can with Leg, (1961) (figure 1) women were used in advertising as extensions of house hold appliances. In this two-panel, oil on canvas, Lichtenstein demonstrates exactly how the woman, while dressed in her high heels, can dispose of the trash without having to physically touch the trash can.

Lichtenstein’s satirical view, not only of the art world, but contemporary social and gender issues, played out over and over again in his paintings. When looking at Girl with Ball, 1961, an ad taken from the Sunday supplement of the New York Times, one can see how Lichtenstein has modified the image in order to create a more dramatic, sexually heightened and cynical view of advertising.

It was Gallerist Ivan Karp along with Louis K. Melsel who helped define the term photo realist painter with one overall rule: that the photo realisest painter must have the ability to “make a painting look photographic.” Like Pop Art, Photo Realism conveys accurate depictions of American life. The use of photography provided artists with the ability to “achieve a much greater degree of formal accuracy.” When one looks at the very nature of photography that captures everything in the lens, one can understand how this played in Goings heightened sense of realism while additionally providing accurate information about light, shadow, reflective surfaces, as well as completely informed visual detail. Relying on the photograph alleviated relying on human observations, “we simply cannot see everything at once with the same clarity.”

Photo Realist painter Ralph Goings has a fascination with the working man’s unpretentious environment. Consistently he has painted the working pickup truck; most often the truck is an older truck which might have been restored to its original condition without the addition of a lot of chrome and fancy gadgets added to the vehicle. The trucks are consistently placed in a typical environment either in front of a diner, residential house, or a store. Goings, who shoots many photographs, will choose one final photograph from which he will work. He builds the canvas to fit the image so there will not be any editing of the original photo. He believes in maintaining the original integrity of the photograph by working within the confines of the information provided. Unlike artist like Edward Hopper who worked from artist renderings and life, Goings feels that working from life unavoidably adds an undesirable element by conveying the artist own feelings or emotions into the painting, thus rendering the image nostalgic or sentimental. By working directly from the photo Goings desire is to keep the painting pristine and original to the photograph, as well as free from any unwanted sentimentality. In choosing Moby Dick as the painting to represent Goings work, I wanted a painting that depicts not only the working truck but the neighborhood in which the truck probably resides.

As important as the truck is as a representation of American life, my personal fascination is with the American home and home ownership. It was the GI Bill of Rights that not only provided post war American veterans with the opportunity for an all expenses paid college education but also provided them with the opportunity to own a home by providing government funded low interest home loans. When one looks at defining what is at the core of the American dream or the implied meaning of Utopia it could be the image of the working truck, strong working men, and smart beautiful women. The idea of home ownership has become synonymous and representative of this American dream. It is interesting when we look at recent events to see how corporate greed and predatory lending practices which have undermined this historic dream.

Lichtenstein and Goings, within the confines of their particular genre, have similarities which go beyond their visual language and iconic imagery. Lichtenstein’s use of paint, his machine-like, ultra smooth application of the paint, leaves no trace of the human mark. Goings, like Lichtenstein, applies his paint to the ultra smooth surface so that for a moment the viewer is uncertain whether the work is a photograph printed on canvas or a painting. Each artist in their visual dialogue looks at the trappings or evidence of life in America with an eye for irony and humor as well as a little cynicism.

Works Sited:

Linda Chase, Ralph Goings, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publisher
Janis Hendrickson, Lichtenstein, Teschen Publisher

Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, and Charles Ray, Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, University of California Press

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, Harper Collins Publishers

Edited by Mark Francis, Survey by Hal Foster, Pop, Phaidon Publishers

Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance, How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, Harper Collins Publishers

Thomas J. Craughwell, The Book of Art, Tess Press