Richard Estes, The Magical City, Allan Stone Gallery (1970's)
In spite of all the minute visual accuracy of detail in Richard Estes' paintings (Allan Stone, May), New York City gleams brightly like a pristine, clearly defined city of dreams some explorer might set sail for, confusing an inner quest for fantasy and emotional fulfillment with his earthly search for cities of gold.
Estes paints what he sees (via the photograph), but in the process of creation, the city becomes stamped with, shaped by, his own personality. It is re-created in his own image.
By and large, the thronging metropolis is unpopulated, a gleaming ghost town. Glass sparkles, metals shine, walls are of newly minted brick and tile, clean, even and precise whether the buildings are one hundred years old or constructed yesterday. Though sidewalks may be cracked, they are neatly cracked. It is a city without pollutants and without movement...a frozen city. Yet not entirely so.
In the diagonal perspective compositions, a foreground wedge of buildings and sidewalk thrusts toward the rear of the picture and a brightly lighted, often nearly rectangular segment of sky and buildings. It appears in these works that Estes is making an unconscious symbolic, emotional statement of personal search and aspiration, with the brightly-colored buildings and sky beyond the foreground darkness, as the goal. These paintings are symbols of quest, and one need not point out examples in song, story, fairytale and painting of castles on crags or golden cities on mountain summits to recognize this.
In the frontal compositions, including "Murano Glass" in the present exhibition, Estes is giving us symbolic representations of himself. The symbolically and psychologically important element in "Murano Glass" is the relationship of the reflection of the Venetian canal and palazzo on the window with the golden interior of the shop seen through the door. It is the contrast of shifting, almost protective, surface concerns, which partially mask but eventually reveal inner realities and profundities.
Estes, in some ways, is like an urban Andrew Wyeth. While Estes devotes his attention to newness and Wyeth emphasizes weathered use, there is a similar minuteness of attention to detail, texture and brushwork. Underlying each brilliant technique, however, is emotional content of a differing kind...a somewhat aloof, stand-offishness in Estes, a melancholy sense of loss and the passing of an era in Wyeth.
The Photo-Realist technique has both helped and hurt Estes. It has helped what is apparently a shy, sensitive individual to study the world at length in the peace and calm of his studio. It has hurt him because he is somewhat limited by the photograph, its stiffness partially responsible for the frozen quality of his paintings.
When an artist paints from life, in this instance the city, he not only sees the city, he experiences it. This total envelopment in the ambience of the city translates itself into an energy and life in the work of the good painter. Estes is a good painter, but removed as he is from direct experience (taking the photo is not quite enough), his paintings tend to be somewhat artificial, lacking in vitality. To rely so heavily on the photograph is to be cut off from reality, and, in a sense, to be part of the problem of contemporary art.
But Estes is the best of the Photo-Realists in terms of handling paint, building forms and expressing himself in his work. There is mind and emotion at work in Estes, though he would deny the latter quality. His concern for visual observation is so acute, his awareness of symbolic or emotional content apparently so minimal, that it might be said of Estes, as it was of Monet, that "he is only an eye; but what an eye."
As difficult as it is to paint the city on the spot (it is nearly impossible), it would be interesting to see what Estes would accomplish painting the same subject matter without the photograph, directly from life.