Tony Mastromatteo, one of the first generation to come out of The Water Street Atelier back when it was still in its original location of Dumbo, Brooklyn, spoke last night at the Janus Collaborative in East Harlem in New York. His lecture was entitled "Reverse Engineering Painting", which he joked was a "sexier" title than simply "Let's Take a Closer Look at Art History." Tony argues that ateliers, which are popping up all over the country, have been too consumed with the technical side of art education and should go beyond this first and required starting point to study art history so that contemporary realist artists can pursue visual meaning beyond technique. Tony believes that the current state of the realist movement (a catch-all term he conceded he was using for the sake of ease) does not live up to the tradition we are beholden to because in pursuing technique (great form, great color, great composition) we forget to see it as handmaiden to the higher meanings that artists in the past chose to illumine through their paintings. "The real project of realism presumes technical rigor," to paraphrase Tony. "Technique is where things start, not where they end." The study of art history shows us that artists were recontextualizing based on associations that they and their audience had acquired through their artistic and cultural lineage and what was happening currently in the world at the time. One of the examples that Tony gave was Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" (1599-1600, Rome): What does recontextualization in order to "further the possibilities of visual language" really mean? Tony explained that Caravaggio was painting this for a bunch of cardinals, cardinals who have access to certain images. The arm of Jesus in the painting not only echoes, but is the exact same limp pointing arm and hand as the one these same Cardinals would have seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (God reaching out to Adam to give him life).
The recontextualization or reappropriation of that arm and hand, about which (as Tony points out) no one ever worries is well painted, is one of the artistic choices that Caravaggio made in order to imbue the actual subject matter with an added layer of meaning and thus to heighten the drama of St. Matthew's conversion.
I'd love to hear what people think of Tony's ideas. As for me, I'm heading to the Met next week to do some reverse engineering.