This past weekend, I made my second-annual journey to bask in the wondrous glow that is the Masters of the American West show at the Autry Center in Los Angeles, CA. My wife, close friend and artist, Ray Brown, and I spent the better part of Saturday ogling the extraordinary works on display and had several jubilant conversations about the art.
One of those conversations spawned two important (but pretty obvious) realizations that I'd like to communicate here; first, great paintings transcend their subject matter. And second, at the level of work on display at the Masters show, personal preference of one painting (or artist) over another is subjective and has little to do with the quality of the artist's technique or skill.
The first realization came from our collective decision to partake in a little fantasy; What piece of art in the show would each of us take home over all the others if we had the means. My wife made an interesting point, her choice was based not necessarily on what she felt was the most aesthetically pleasing piece, or a painting or sculpture that would best suite the decor of our home, but rather, which work of art she connected with most on an emotional level.
I'm not all that into 'cowboy' or 'Indian' paintings as a genre of art. The subject matter isn't particularly interesting to me. But the painting I chose was a painting of three native Americans on horseback titled, Lost Tracks by Z.S. Liang. For me, this painting was beyond its subject. It transcended subject matter as the greatest of paintings do. I connected with it on an emotional level. It was exquisite and appealed to everything I personally find beautiful in representational painting. Much of Liang's paintings are like this for me, and my wife as well. One of his paintings at the show even made Yvonne a little teary-eyed (and no, she's not allergic to great paintings as she tried to make us to believe).
The artist's ability to create a work that can so deeply affect the viewer is, I think, what we are all striving for as artists. My goal as an artist is not to produce great wildlife or landscape paintings, but instead, is to produce great art. I hope that one day I will be capable of creating a painting that transcends its subject as my wife and I both felt Z.S. Liang's had done.
The second conversation involved Ray and I. We began contemplating who's work might one day take the position of prominence in the show (as you enter, a large Howard Terpning painting greets you) after Howard has passed on — sort of morbid conversation but it wasn't as bad as it sounds here. I think we both agreed that it would likely be one of the great Chinese painters, in particular, Mian Situ. Although, I personally think Morgan Weistling will be in the running.
I mentioned that I actually prefer Z.S. Liang's paintings over Howard's. Ray, as a generalization, preferred Howard's. We had our differing reasons, but in the end, neither one of us could convince the other to switch our preference, because from a purely technical standpoint, the two artists are masters. You can't argue that one is technically better than the other because they're beyond that. It could only come down to personal preference of one artist's style over the other and that is a truly great example of the subjective nature of art — especially when considering Ray and I have very similar taste in art.
There are a number of artists in the Master Show that I feel belong on the 'wall of prominence'. Ray's and my opinion certainly doesn't matter. In the end, the choice will be somewhat subjective because at this level of painting, personal opinion is all there is left to argue.