Before you potentially dismiss TRAC 2019: The Representational Art Conference as an exercise in academic pretension (because you aren’t sure what “representational art” is, or whether you want to confer about it), let Michael Pearce put your fears to rest.
Representational art is simply “stuff that looks like stuff,” said Pearce, a California Lutheran University art professor, conference co-founder and champion of accessible art.
Another term for “figurative art,” representational artwork features people, places and things that are easily recognizable: portraits, landscapes, wildlife paintings, still lifes, figurative sculptures. The art subject doesn’t have to be realistic; representational art also depicts fantasy and mythological characters, and trees that are purple (but still clearly trees). But representational art is not simplistic, either, often embodying complex symbolism and ideas.
What it’s not is abstract or avant-garde. Pearce, a figurative painter, founded TRAC seven years ago because no one else was elevating representational art at the academic and critical level.
He and former CLU art faculty member and painter Michael Lynn Adams organized the first TRAC in 2012. They brought the idea for a representational art conference to Chris Kimball, president of CLU, who agreed to support their proposal, and CLU became the host and principal funder of TRAC. The conference has been held almost every year since 2012, three times in Ventura, once in Miami, and last year in The Netherlands. The conference returns this year to Ventura at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, from Sunday, March 31, through Thursday, April 4.
Pearce said respect for representational art was practically nonexistent during the 20th century, but “the art world has changed considerably.” The reasons vary — “some political, some aesthetic,” he said. “Lots of abstract and conceptual art was in response to world wars, and we’ve come a long way from world wars as a cultural influence.”
He likes to use a recognizable but ethereal object to describe the current state of the art world: bubbles.
“We’re living in a cultural bubble bath,” Pearce said. “You can find anything you want, some bubble of cultural interest. Modern art doesn’t rule the art world like it did in the 20th century. For people who like Thomas Kinkade and sentimental art, people who love pre-Raphaelite art, no one is stopping them.”
The conference will be bursting with artists, scholars, art educators, museum curators, collectors and critics from around the world participating in panels, academic presentations and artist demonstrations.
The public is invited as well, and an exhibition of art at the hotel will be open for free.
Artists scheduled to demonstrate include fantasy artist Boris Vallejo; wildlife artist Julie Bell; sculptors Alicia Ponzio and Brian Booth Craig; and painters Teresa Oaxaca, Alexey Steele, Scott Prior and Pamela Wilson.
Bell, who for many years has painted illustrations for fantasy and science fiction books and video games, is also known for her wildlife paintings.
“Whether it’s a person or animal, I want you to feel like you’re with that creature, that being,” she said. “In an abstract painting, which I appreciate as well, there’s a whole different reason for making the painting.”
The conference speakers include Roger Dean, who created nearly all the album covers for the progressive rock band Yes; Chinese American artist Z.S. Liang, known for his paintings of Native Americans; and Corinna Wagner, author of Art and Soul: Victorians and the Gothic.
This year’s conference will focus on the relationship between imagination and 21st-century representational art. The conference’s call for papers asked for submissions that address questions such as whether artists can be both representational and imaginative, how imagination is different from fantasy, and “left brain/right brain: Do artists need both?”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing speakers at TRAC will be someone who’s not an artist at all, but has spent years in a unique artistic pursuit. Tim Jenison, founder of the technology company NewTek, created early computer video production tools like DigiView and the Video Toaster®. But he is perhaps best known for his painstaking, years-long attempt to re-create Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s painting “The Music Lesson” using optical tools.
Jenison wanted to figure out how Vermeer painted so photorealistically in
the 17th century, years before the invention of photography. He theorized that Vermeer used optical tools that were available at the time: lenses and mirrors. To test his idea, Jenison built a to-scale re-creation of Vermeer’s studio in a warehouse in Texas, then used a small mirror mounted on a stick to paint “The Music Lesson.”
Jenison and his project were the subject of the 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer, written and directed by Teller and co-produced and –written by Penn Jillette, of the magical stage duo Penn and Teller.
The project has been criticized by some who think Jenison is trying to suggest that anyone could create what Vermeer did with a simple mirror.
“I’m not a painter, so it’s kind of a weird little hobby,” said Jenison, speaking on the phone from Tasmania. He said he is not interested in the modern philosophical divide between representational and nonrepresentational art.
“I suppose there are factions among representational artists that would resent the idea of using optics; they basically revere the Golden Age artists,” Jenison said. “I’m just saying it’s possible to use optics and get similar results without training. My interest is not art history or theory; it’s a very technical question. If optics were around, how were painters using them?”
Addressing the conference’s emphasis on imagination, Jenison said he believes “the modern attitude that technologists and artists are two different things is wrong. They are two sides of the same thing: It’s creative problem solving.”
Representational art, then, is about solving stuff, too.
TRAC 2019: The Representational Arts Conference 2019 takes place March 31-April 4 at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, 450 E. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. Full-conference and day passes are available. For more information, visit www.trac2019.org.