Editor's note: The following essay is printed with permission of the Arnot Art Museum and the author. The essay was included in the 80 page illustrated 2001 catalogue titled Re-presenting Representation V, pp. 4-5. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Arnot Art Museum directly through this phone number or web address:


Re-presenting Representation V

introductory essay by John D. O'Hern



Do not seek to follow in the
footsteps of the Masters;
seek what they sought.
-- Zen saying


In the essay to the first Re-presenting Representation exhibition in 1993, I joined the chorus of many realist artists at the time, "Nobody understands us! They think it's all been done before!" The art world has slowly come to realize what the public has known all along: realism has a firm place among the myriad modes of expression we are experiencing today. More and more exhibitions focus on contemporary realism, and museums are adding it to their collections.

Collecting today's realist art is difficult for individuals as well as for museums. There are no long market trends to establish dollar value. There are no lists of museums or collectors who have previously validated the work. Collectors must rely on their knowledge of art in general and on their instincts. That a collector or a curator "has an eye" is a phrase often heard among art aficionados. It is a reliance on some level of knowledge and on an indefinable instinct that motivates the collector to make a choice.

Some collect the work of artists who follow in the footsteps of the masters. The work fits safely within the conventions of tradition. Others collect the work of artists who seek what the masters sought. That work connects to a universal unconscious that engages "instinct."

Having "an eye" helps the collector see the unique value of a work of art. Many however, "have eyes and see not." Even those of us who may be expected to "have eyes" often "see not." Surprisingly, on tours of our exhibitions or our permanent collection, a visitor will point out a detail that is important to a painting that I had, until that moment, never seen.

Often those who follow in the footsteps of the masters fail to attain the greatness of the master. Some are consumed by the master like a moth in a flame. Some, with less talent and less ability to develop skills, are overwhelmed and held back. Some may follow a master who isn't able to guide his disciples to the steps that begin the path.

The Buddha himself warned of the dangers of relying on the master:

Rely not on the teacher, but on the teaching.
Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words.
Rely not on theory, but on experience.

One of this year's artists who has relied on his experience of the world is Wade Reynolds, a 72-year-old, self-taught artist living in California. Wade was born in Jasper, NY, moved to Elmira and attended Elmira schools. He saw his first painting at the Arnot Art Museum and participated in our student art exhibitions. Now Wade teaches at the Art Institute of San Francisco and at the Art Institute of Southern California. His work is in the collections of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others.

Wade, who is at the upper end of the age spectrum of artists in the exhibition, embodies the characteristics that Edith Wharton thought necessary for long life: being "unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways."

Wade and the other established artists in the exhibition are in touch with their sources: of inspiration and, unencumbered by the demands of establishing a reputation, paint from within. The best of the young generation of artists follow in their footsteps, painting what they must rather than slavishly reproducing the past or producing for the market. They paint what they see, filtered through their own uniqueness, and buoyed on the insights of human millennia.

Another Zen poem comes to mind:

When, just as they are,
white dewdrops gather
On scarlet maple leaves,
Regard the scarlet beads!
-- Ikkyu, Zen poems

The poet regards, edits, and assembles words. The visual artist translates his observations into other media. Scott Caioti renders the female form in white pencil on black paper. Valerie Demianchuk celebrates a tangled lump of seaweed in pencil on paper and likens her effort to composing chamber music. Isabel McIlvain freezes the fleeting ebb and flow of a wave in hydrocal. Keith Milow's fiberglass panels pretend to be heavy steel plates.

The artist sees what is apparent with greater precision than the layman. The person who trains himself to see can also he aware of the effect of haze on the color of trees on a distant hill; the way forms and colors change as light moves across them; the translucency of flesh.

The 15th century Zen Master, Ikkyu's "scarlet beads" may escape the casual observer. To many of us, dewdrops are clear and fall maple leaves are red. Ikkyu sees that the water drops, as it were, become red, taking on the color of the leaf. He encourages us to be less literal when we regard the world.

Literal imitation of the masters produces lifeless, backward-looking art. Slavish imitation of the natural world is equally lifeless because the artist lacks the fire in the belly to look and to see.

Representational art helps the viewer to seek what the masters seek. It attracts the viewer by having a recognizable subject; a subject that is depicted by the artist in a way that may or may not correspond to the viewer's previous experience. It is a springboard from which the earthbound can soar.


About the author

John D. O'Hern is curator and Director of the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY.  In 1992 the museum revised its mission to have a "primary focus" on representational art.The following year it inagurated a series of biennial exhibitions, Re-presenting Representation , which have been featured on CNN in 250 countries and known as one of the best of their kind.  O'Hern is a MAPII reviewer and a member of the Visiting Committee of the American Association of Museums, and was chair of the Visual Artists Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.  Previously he was curator of Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, NY, and Assistant to the Director of the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.  O'Hern frequently writes catalogue essays for exhibitions in the U.S. and Canada.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Arnot Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

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