Glass explores the bright realm of nonconformist art

Glass Man takes a look at art that is often dismissed as unsophisticated because it doesn’t conform to artistic norms

It’s likely that when you were taught art at school you were told that the more realistic the apple looked, the better the drawing of the apple was. The goal was to be able to represent objects and people in the most accurate way possible, using shading, line, colour and perspective to represent things exactly. The best artist in your class could draw a near-perfect portrait of the teacher while their parents’ friends paid them to draw their pets.

Therefore, ‘good’ art is realistic, accurate and looks exactly like what it is representing. ‘Bad’ art is confusing, messy, doesn’t accurately represent something  and uses the ‘wrong’ colours and scale. By this metric, Picasso’s portraits are ‘bad’; only hyper-realism is ‘good’.

Of course, we don’t believe that and ascribe value to artworks for other things (including the name scribbled in the corner).  But we have also evolved over centuries with the artists to understand that art is often not just representing, or presenting, the physical reality but also the emotional, the spiritual and the psychological. How do you represent sadness on a canvas? How do you integrate politics and speech into a painting?

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Orange), 1968. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Bildrecht, Vienna, 2019. Photo © Robert Bayer / Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel, Sammlung Beyeler

I was recently at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, an extraordinary building which has somehow managed to remain modern despite being nearly 50 years old. The galleries hold an extraordinary collection of contemporary art, including works by Mark Rothko, who is just the man I want to talk about. Rothko, born in Russia in 1903, was a Jewish immigrant raised in the US who began his career as an artist in 1920s New York.

His style migrated from surrealism to abstract expressionism, and in the 1940s, he began a collection of works for which he is now most famous: the colour field paintings. These huge rectangles of colours are abstract, meaning they aren’t intended to accurately represent people or landscapes but to evoke emotional responses from the viewer.

The scale of the work was very intentional – the 15ft high canvases took up the viewer’s entire field of vision, immersing them in the painting itself.  The colours, sometimes similar so that they could be blended seamlessly with one another, were selected to specifically represent awe, ecstasy or sorrow.

When you approach art by considering what tangible object or setting it might represent, then  (like my boyfriend at Centre Pompidou faced with a Rothko) you will be confused, unimpressed and bemused by the vast majority of contemporary art. To begin seeing art as a way to represent the intangible is to honour the minds and processes of artists who are ultimately looking to communicate complex ideas, experiences and emotions to a viewer.

Euan Roberts' work - courtesy of, and available at, Reem GalleryEuan Roberts’ work – courtesy of, and available at, Reem Gallery

Representing the intangible is one way that art strays from the realistic depiction of things. Another way (and one which is nice and divisive) is artwork described as “faux naïf”, meaning affectingly childlike or artfully simple (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Not to be confused with naïve art (when the artist has no formal training or teaching), faux-naif is when an artist (trained or taught in art, to an extent) emulates the primitive aesthetic with a very flat style and a lack of accurate perspective. In the 20th century, artists like José Rodrigues Fuster and Paul Klee began to simplify people and places in their work to return to a more primal mode of presentation. Klee was particularly inspired by the clarity in communication that visual works by children and people with mental illness had.

Euan Roberts’ work – courtesy of, and available at, Reem Gallery

Johanna Siegler, writing for  Spring Journal, quoted Klee saying, “Art does not reproduce the visible, but it makes it visible”. This explains how Klee’s work coined the art term, faux naïf, indicating “work that issues from an inner certainty or necessity as opposed to outside logic or influence”. In other words, the work is childlike,  not childish; it simplifies visual complexities so that the artist can authentically and broadly present experiences and observations.

When it comes to painting, contemporary examples might include the artist Euan Roberts who, when speaking to Art Republic in 2021, said, “I’ve always wanted to say something that is simultaneously amusing, profound and nonsensical in my art. I want people to see the joy I get from making the art in the results.” Roberts’ paintings, a bear on a yoga mat or a shark crying, anthropomorphise animals and depict them in overly simplified ways. The works appeal to many because of the emotional reaction evoked, the joy found in them, and the acute social observations made through them.

Euan Roberts' work - courtesy of, and available at, Reem GalleryEuan Roberts’ work – courtesy of, and available at, Reem Gallery

A recent series of works depict luxury shoes (a high heel by Louis Vuitton and a trainer by Balenciaga), but these are not shoe adverts, they don’t need to look like the product – and they don’t. Each painting has a single shoe, painted in thick, overlapping paint strokes in primary colours, with a leg attached but cut off at the lower calf as it falls over the top of the canvas. The painted shoes allude to shoes that might exist in real life, while remaining cartoonish and imagined.

Those who want to understand or consider these paintings more deeply or beyond the childlike brushstrokes might be drawn to the way that Roberts presents gender and race. The legs are in shades of brown and some have short, spiky, black hairs sticking out of them haphazardly. Roberts invites us to question the lack of racial diversity in the luxury industries, on the fashion catwalks and among the wealthy who own these goods, as well as considering any social stereotypes that society has created for these household-name brands.

GM_53_Mens_All_Page_103_Image_0001Euan Roberts’ work – courtesy of, and available at, Reem Gallery

The leg hair is almost comical (lines of black poking over an emerald-coloured Prada kitten heel), perhaps because bare legs with obvious leg hair and high heels are not a common combination. We have Western beauty standards and gender norms to thank for that. Roberts presents the shoes to us in his playful style, but mixed into the mustard yellow and salmon pink are thoughtful social commentaries and small visual elements which represent larger themes and topics.

The obvious, and overused, remark in most modern art galleries is, ‘My five-year-old could have done that’, so overused that a marvellous book called Why your five year old could not have done that: Modern Art Explained by Susie Hodges is on most reading lists about modern and contemporary art. Hodges writes a persuasive and thorough argument, discussing 100 artworks for reference, concluding that these works are the result of sophisticated and considered investigations by the artists, and are inspired ways of communicating ideas of their time.

One response to hearing that disparaging remark in the hallowed halls of Tate Modern, or in Reem Gallery where I work, would be to recommend Hodge’s book, another would be to engage in a conversation offering the examples and art history that I have offered above. I prefer whispering to myself, “But they didn’t”.

by Phoebe Minson

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