Contemporary Art Worth Knowing

Levenson - Sibling Bond

Shana Levenson, Sibling Bond (2016)

Two exhibitions this spring have powerfully belied the artworld pretense that all contemporary art is in an anti-traditional “cutting-edge” vein. And unlike the contemporary work that fills today’s leading museums and galleries, they offer art lovers something to rejoice in.

The smaller of the two shows is Self-Portrait (April 20 – June 20)—at the Eleventh Street Arts gallery, affiliated with the Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City. The other is the Art Renewal Center’s 12th International Salon Exhibition (at the Salmagundi Club in New York, May 12 – June 1)—culled from entries submitted from more than sixty countries. Both exhibitions include work by some of the very best Classical Realist painters from around the world, a movement lamentably ignored by both art teachers and the art establishment.

The works most prominently featured on the two exhibition websites are not the ones I would have chosen. But I found other works in both shows to be truly memorable.


To begin with the self-portraits, the sheer diversity of images on display at Eleventh Street Arts is impressive—lest any reader assume that work in the academic tradition is likely to be stale and repetitive. From the keenly penetrating gaze of Louise Fenne’s Working on a Self-Portrait (see below) and Colleen Barry’s pensive Self-Portrait with St. Jerome to Jacob Collins’s rugged Winter Self-Portrait and Gregory Mortenson’s anxious Self-Portrait with Scarf, these works testify to the infinite variety of human individuality. They remind us how crucially we depend on reading the face to discern character, mood, and emotion. And in a culture seduced by the vulgar triviality of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, it is restorative to see images conveying a sense of dignity and gravity.

Fenne - Self-Portrait

Louise Fenne, Working on a Self-Portrait (2017)

Other works I was drawn to were Will St. John’s large-scale Self-Portrait with White Scarf (27 x 35 in.) and Charles Weed’s much smaller Plain Old Self-Portrait (7.8 x 9.8 in). They struck me as 21st-century counterparts of early and late Rembrandt portraits, respectively. Gazing out at the viewer with sober confidence, St. John cuts an imposing figure, poised with the instruments of his art (the white scarf wound around his neck recalls, perhaps intentionally, the white ruffs prominent in so many 17th-century Dutch portraits). In contrast, Weed’s intimate, slouch-hatted image, like Rembrandt’s late work, suggests self-knowledge deepened by experience. If I read it correctly, the sadness or weariness reflected in the eyes is offset by the faint play of a smile about the mouth—consistent with the self-deprecating humor of his title.

Of Joshua LaRock’s two entries, I found his 2016 Self-Portrait especially appealing. Seated before his easel (with a self-portrait in progress), he turns, palette in hand, as if to greet an unexpected visitor to the studio. His mouth slightly open in surprise, and his right arm jauntily braced against his thigh, he does not seem to welcome the intrusion!

Kudos to artist Colleen Barry for curating this excellent little show, and to Milène Fernandez of Epoch Times for writing about it (“Self-Portraits: Meeting the Artist Eye-to-Eye,” April 23, 2017). Will the benighted New York Times critics ever discover the value of such work?

ARC Salon

Unlike the Eleventh Street show focusing on one genre, the ARC exhibition comprised work in multiple categories. Of the landscapes, the two that made the greatest impression on me were not the award winners but Joseph McGurl’s luminous Transfiguration (below). and Katsu Nakajima’s luxuriant Stream of the Shadow.

Mcgurl - Transfiguration

Joseph McGurl, Transfiguration (2016)

Photographic though they may seem online, they are in fact selective re-creations of reality (to borrow Ayn Rand’s apt phrase), shaped in loving detail over time, as if honoring every blade of grass. They bear witness to a reverence for the beauty of the natural world. That reverence is made explicit in the artists’ statements, but the viewer scarcely needs those verbal confessions.1

Kim - Indian Peahen

Grace Kim, Indian Peahen (2015)

Nor does one need Grace Kim’s feminist-inspired artist’s statement to be transfixed by the penetrating eye of her Indian Peahen. Vividly alive, it seems to say “don’t mess with me!”

Two captivating paintings in the still life genre were Ascolta, ti Ricorderà, by Miki K. T. Chart, and Carmen Ruiz Segura’s Don Quijote. Both are boldly imaginative and effectively realized. To anyone familiar with Cervantes’s classic send-up of chivalric literature, Segura’s paper specter rising from the pages of a book, ready to tilt with a paint-brush lance against an oil lamp, is the perfect embodiment of the novel’s protagonist. No title or artist’s statement needed. So, too, Chart’s image speaks for itself, as art should do. Her tiny canary perched atop an old-fashioned mandolin, singing its heart out, is clearly a nostalgic evocation of the musical traditions of Italy—as further alluded to by an antique map depicted in the background.

In the final chapter of Who Says That’s Art? I suggest that what is needed to counter the artworld’s “cutting-edge” mentality is a 1913 Armory Show in reverse, on a grand scale. The ARC salons are the closest thing to that idea that have yet occurred. But they require better publicity. And the cause may not be well served by some of the top awards bestowed.2

This year’s Best in Show, for example, was Semillas, by Tenaya Sims. It struck me as an ambitious but puzzling and oddly repellent image, too dependent on the artist’s long-winded verbal explanation for understanding his intention. And last year’s Absolute Trust – Sleeping Beauty, by Arantzazu Martinez, left me equally unmoved. What should be the most telling part of the picture—the face of the sleeping princess—was far less interesting than her sumptuous garb and the plethora of props and birds surrounding her, which seemed a mere pretext for displaying technical virtuosity. Then, too, there is the matter of her hair, inexplicably windblown when the drapery around her shows no sign of movement.

In contrast, let me cite the work from this year’s show that has made the most lasting impression upon me. It is Shana Levenson’s Sibling Bond. Pictured above, it is an unpretentious yet moving embodiment of the love between a small, sad-eyed boy and his not-much-older sister, who enfolds him in her protective embrace and seems to set her mouth firmly against adversity. It called to mind for me tender moments I’ve witnessed between my own grandchildren, as well as fictional accounts of such a bond—most recently, the characters of Florence and Paul Dombey in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Here is surely an enduring human theme, deeply felt and touchingly rendered.

For today’s art teachers exclusively focused on politically and socially “relevant” contemporary work of dubious artistic quality, this painting should serve as a counterexample worth knowing and teaching about. As it indicates, there is much more to our lives than the social and political dimension. The personal dimension is of profound importance as well, and should not be neglected in the art education of our children.


  1. Nakajima’s statement. As McGurl reports, his image is indeed a “synthesis of several landscapes . . . seen and painted over the years.”
  2. For more about this year’s ARC salon, both pro and con, see “A One of a Kind Art Salon Champions Realism,” by Milène Fernandez (Epoch Times, May 18, 2017).