Imaginative Realists — A New Age of American Art

Michael J. Pearce
Apr 11 · 19 min read

Imaginative Realist painters and sculptors use traditional realist techniques to create images of things that are not real.

Although Imaginative Realist painters and sculptors are visionary inventors of new worlds, their work has roots that stretch all the way back to the earliest days of human creativity, when mankind crafted man-beast hybrids and painted their prey upon the dark walls of ancient caves. Batman was first drawn in the year that the Lion Man sculpture pictured here was discovered.

Imaginative Realist works are romantic, and alluring, and fascinating because although they are painted using methodologies that are typically used to create traditional landscapes and figurative imagery, the scenes they describe are unfamiliar, unreal and other-worldly.

Today, American culture is dominated by mythical imagery, with gods and heroes recast in the movies produced by D.C. and Marvel, in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, and in the magnificent spectacles of Game of Thrones. Video games capture the attention of a gigantic portion of the entertainment market, many offering participation in fully conceived imaginative worlds.

At first glance, Imaginative Realist paintings fit comfortably within the public’s obsession with entertainment themes like these, and the sphere of these paintings could be viewed as a sideshow to the far greater financial impact of Hollywood productions. They, too, have a sense of being set within an imagined but orderly other-universe. They, too, follow an internal, speculative logic. They, too, step beyond the mundane into the extraordinary. Imaginative Realist paintings and sculptures feed Imaginative Realist literature, film and video, and vice versa.

But there is an additional depth that provides paintings and sculptures with a gravity that is missing in motion pictures. This is the depth that time offers us. Paintings are slow. They allow an almost meditative process of enjoyment, in which viewers get to know single images, which can tell surprisingly detailed stories. This slowness is in direct contrast to the rapid cutting and tumultuous cascade of imagery that characterizes superhero films. In addition, the solid reality of a painting or sculpture offers an experience quite different from the transience of film or video imagery, which flits before us, untouchable and immaterial. When we look at a painting we are keenly aware that it is made of colored pigments, and aware of the skilled hand of the artist that made it — but when we step beyond the truth that the painting is goo, cleverly moved around with a stick, we enjoy the wonderful moment when we accept the image as a moment of reality. Paintings and sculptures are a deception, but they tell a beautiful lie, and we love to be seduced into the other world of their creator’s invention. Imaginative Realists indulge our pleasure and open doors to these other worlds.

The cultural impact of imaginative realism in the 20th Century was already immense before the millennium turned upon its axis, but its products were treated with contempt by the avant-gardist academy and by Yankee art critics who were supposed to comment upon culture with insight, but instead served the interests of American propagandists at the expense of the art of the people.

The avant-gardist theorists of the 20th Century condemned sentiment as the antithesis of the un-ornamented abstraction that they believed symbolized a new, enlighted post-war world. In large part, their iconoclastic condemnation of sentiment resulted from an awareness of its use as a manipulative tool of enemy propagandists. But rather obviously, not all imagery that appeals to us at an emotional level is crafted as propaganda for tyrannical dictatorships. Clearly, imagery that has a sentimental element is not always politically motivated. Experiencing sentiment is an inherent part of human life. Without it and without our emotional responses to the incidents of daily life, we would be machines.

Even the most severe avant-gardist’s home had pictures of the kids in it somewhere.

The grey avant-gardists’ snobbish disdain for figurative painting was guided by elitism, and their hatred of art which had any scent of sentiment was impressively vitriolic. They were wrong to poison the well of thousands of years of traditional image-making. Thankfully the 20th century is twenty years past, and fully-formed postmodernism has released imaginative realism from the toxic acrimony of the radical avant-garde. The well is deep, and the water is fresh.

Richard MacDonald’s sculptures are deeply sentimental. He is a master sculptor, whose technique is faultless, and capable of capturing the most extraordinary moments of poise and balance. He uses gymnastic acrobats from the world-famous Cirque du Soleil as his models and loves to portray them at moments of peak performance when their musculature is most perfectly defined, and their bodies at the most weightless instants of movement. The sculptures are theatrical, frozen moments of rich narratives. These strange people in fine, unearthly costumes are caught in a story that begs for completion in the viewer’s inquisitive mind. They live in another world and another time, where gravity no longer pulls their perfect bodies to the earth.

If there is any political motivation in the work, it is indiscernible.

The appeal of Imaginative Realism is not limited to sentiment. It has a long historical pedigree bound together by two particularly important strands. Its technical excellence is derived from studio practices that have been used for centuries to produce the masterpieces of art history we admire as our cultural heritage. Secondly, its subject matter is sourced in imagery and literature dating from periods of art history including prehistory, Greek antiquity, and the recent past, using motifs that appear throughout the canon of art. Powerful respect for ancient mythology provides artists with rich material that resonates with human experience. To cavalierly dismiss the stories of classical antiquity as a dead tradition is hubris.

An abbreviated version of the story of Pegasus appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical texts, but the famed flying horse has had a life in the visual arts far greater than the fragments about him that are to be found in the literature — artists have loved painting images of the fantastic winged horse for more than two millennia. Contributing to the long lineage of Pegasus’ visual history, Julie Bell has created a new image of the mythical creature, placing him as a pony in a woodland clearing, accompanied by a priestess. Her eyes are closed as she imagines the winged horse, hoping to visualize him into reality.

The similarities between Bell’s If Wishes Were Horses and J. W. Waterhouse’s magnificent Lady of Shalott are self-evident — look at the loose brushwork of the pastoral landscape, the lovingly rendered white dress and gold jewelry, the careful detail of the central figure, the color palette. Bell has clearly been careful to look closely at Waterhouse’s technique as she produced her painting. This delight in the Pre-Raphaelite’s work is consistent with the conservative care and attention to the foundations of Western painting found in much Imaginative Realism, both in the sources of the imagery and in the techniques used to paint them.

Naturally, Bell is influenced by her husband Boris Vallejo, the great fantasy artist, famed for his paintings of Conan and muscular men and women. His painting Amaryllis Embrace also draws upon classical mythology, reimagining the beautiful Lamia, who was Zeus’ lover. In retribution for her relationship with the god, Zeus’ jealous wife Hera transformed Lamia into a half-snake, half-human monster by, and killed all her children. Tortured by her loss, Lamia hunts down children to devour them so that others might suffer as she did.

Despite the iridescent eye-candy of the wings, this is not a picture for children, but an interpretation of a character from the canon of classical mythology — an imaginative Freudian expansion upon the ancient character. An erotic painter, perhaps Vallejo, too, was inspired by Waterhouse, who painted two sensual 19th Century images of Lamia.

Vince Natale’s beautiful Dreameater is a painting of an imaginary organic artifact memorializing the archaeology of horror; a catastrophically weird little monster, collected and venerated by some insane antiquarian with a love for the shadowy objects in the place in our minds where we enjoy fear. It is an abstract painting crafted by a master of representation.

It too is deeply rooted in art historical imagery, sharing its lineage with paintings like Brueghel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels. This and Brueghel’s other painted depictions of extraordinary spectacles were produced in the 16th Century, as European culture experienced the crisis of the Protestant Reformation, against a background of the new humanist thought that began to undermine the Catholic church’s religious authority. His remarkable imagination produced strange creatures, weird costumes and demonic figures in a crowded landscape almost completely concealed by the mass of bizarre characters. What Natale has done is to imagine a monstrous abstraction like one of Brueghel’s in an occult ossuary, and painted its impossible form like a studio study.

Sandra Yagi’s little skeletons fly, play music and perform, in a macabre celebration of life after death. The bones of her hybrid twins dance together as part of the mad merrymaking of the dead. Like Natale’s organic form, they would be a welcome addition to a 21st Century cabinet of curiosities.

Cabinets of Curiosity were collections made by antiquarians who were fascinated both by history, which was being rediscovered during the Renaissance and also by the practices of early science, known as alchemy, which was beginning to reveal the secrets of nature, cracked open by the invention of distillation. The scent of miraculous divine intercession hung about these collections, which owed much to the reliquaries of the Medieval churches, and the antiquarians emphasized the Platonic principle “as above, so below” — the idea that earthly things mirrored heavenly things. Athanasius Kircher, the father of Egyptology, decorated the ceiling of his spectacular cabinet of curiosities with the inscription: “Whosoever perceives the chain that binds the world below to the world above will know the mysteries of nature and achieve miracles.”

This is an allegorical way of thinking. Unusual objects that challenged expectations were particularly desirable to antiquarians and were thought of as revelations that might lead to a more enlightened understanding of the working of the creation. Consequently, in these early days of collecting for the sake of public edification, we find a special focus upon freaks, hybrids and weird things as centers of interest. Kircher’s cabinet collection included a mermaid’s tail, a giant’s bones, and optical illusions that amazed his visitors. Cabinets of Curiosity were intended to increase our sense of wonder, to open the possibilities of imagination.

Allegorical imagery is among the oldest historical sources of 21st Century imaginative realism. A deeply allegorical painter, whose imagery is carefully loaded with multiple layers of interpretive symbolism, Regina Jacobson conceals allegorical meanings within an approach to stories that is the visual equivalent to Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection of poems based on the Grimm brothers’ macabre tales, or to Angela Carter’s rich and unearthly narrative writing in her Bloody Chamber, pulling its darkly erotic stories from Grimm’s and reimagining them from a woman’s point of view.

Jacobson’s diptych, The Queen’s Dominion, is a lush and pretty pair of paintings that recollects imagery from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She has said that they refer to her relationship with mother, who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and behaves like the Queen of Hearts to those who fail to serve her whims — off with their heads. In other paintings, she suspends women within a magic circle, confining them in the protective ritual space where they can examine themselves in their nakedness before the mirror that reveals the artifice of costume and make-up.

Like Jacobson, Kathiucia Dias uses allegorical narrative to draw us into her secret world. In her painting, A Murder of Crows, a nervous man, clutching at his collar, waits for someone to arrive in a richly decorated Medieval cloister, sourced and re-imagined from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. He twists to look out of the gothic window to see if she is coming. There are two sensual features that create a subtly erotic atmosphere — a raven offers the dark stranger a red cherry from its perch on a tub beside him; a piece of silk lingerie lies on the ground before his feet.

A Cherokee tale tells the story of the raven as the bearer of a red berry plucked from a tree in the world of spirits, which could grant redemption to an evil person and return their soul from darkness to light, should they choose it. The mosaic wall is decorated with stills of a corvid in flight, freezing frames of its movement like Muybridge’s photographs of bodies in motion. The man in black is in the path of the crow’s frozen flight, suggesting that he has dark intentions, but that he might still be redeemed if he eats the red berry.

The walls of Dias’ cloister are heavily decorated with a pattern of mosaic tiles. Painting it must have taken a long time and a great deal of care. There is a devotional quality to it that evokes Medieval Christian panel painting and Orthodox iconography.

This kind of craftsmanship was emulated by Gustav Klimt in his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which built upon the tradition to create a new kind of icon, dedicated to the bourgeoisie instead of the church. The painting has the same degree of painstaking detail and is made from the same rich materials, but the patterns refer to a fluid symbolic design of rectangles, spirals and circles similar to the Neolithic solar designs found at Newgrange, dating to five thousand years before Christ’s birth. It acknowledges our very ancient obligation to our ancestors, and brings the emulative contract into the present, while also referencing our debt to the church.

Like Klimt, Brad Kunkle refers to icons in his work. The foliage in the foreground of his Nature of History is painted by using brown paint over silver leaf, lifting the pigment to reveal the shining metal beneath. He plays with the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane by painting shadows of the flitting swallows as if they are inches away from the surface of the panel, creating that cognitive dissonance we enjoy when witnessing an optical illusion. One moment the silver background is the sky above the landscape, the next it suddenly becomes a wall behind the birds. His interest in the flattened patterns of icons and Klimt’s work is evident in his use of the striped shirt and the peacock-like fan of gold and silver spread about the waist of the model.

In Dazzling Dark, one of Pamela Wilson’s seductive smaller works, a woman rides on a merry-go-round, clutching a child’s lolly-pop, made-up like the histrionic 1970’s vaudeville rocker Alice Cooper and dressed up in a costume taken from the wardrobe department of a cowboy movie — she is weeping, and her make-up has run. The decorative stallion she rides is a carved, wooden fake — hers is a false species of wildness and she pretends her freedom. Here we catch a hint of the sweet scent of luxurious hysteria.

Always keen to create images of theatrically Bohemian life, Wilson’s golden backgrounds and her fancy-dressed characters suggest problems with the self-indulgent reaction to over-abundance that is symptomatic of our time. She seems to ask a moral question — is dissolute pleasure-seeking the best way to deal with material wealth? Her work is paradoxical because although the paintings offer a moral lesson, they rejoice in materiality.

Nor has the Baroque has been neglected as a source for Imaginative Realism. Here is Guy Kinnear’s Putto With Paper Wings, which resembles ecstatic works depicting transfiguration painted during the Counter-Reformation.

Kinnear is not mocking or trivializing Christian art in his work, although he uses the visual language of Baroque transcendence. He has a deep interest in exploring ideas about form in the natural world. The paper and cloth dolls in his paintings allude to the mannequins of Pietro Annigolini, and occupy the same pictorial spaces as still life and 19th Century landscape paintings. They are made by his family and placed outside in the landscape around his home, where he lives off-the-grid.

Kinnear is interested in the relationship between these dolls and academic plaster casts, which were used to train salon artists — while the white academic casts are several steps removed from the human form, and deeply artificial, his little mannequins are sincere symbols of Kinnear’s detachment from technology. Placed in the natural world, their home-made quality is completely unpretentious. His low point of view makes the still-life dolls appear portentous and significant, as though they are the bringers of messages, and they are lit by natural, divine light like the golden sun that illuminates the sublime landscapes of the Hudson River School. By these clever devices, they are transformed into giant golems, whose huge alien forms stagger across the landscape like imaginary creatures from Dr. Frankenstein’s dreams.

His paintings are reminiscent of surrealist works, but while surrealists looked inward at the subconscious to attempt to understand themselves, Kinnear prefers to work at understanding the world around him by looking at juxtapositions of strange, but prosaic objects and natural landscapes, creating dream-like imagery from the reality he sees.

As Roger Scruton has said, the people of the present have a contract with the people of the past and the people of the future, an agreement to maintain the traditions that have brought culture this far. Without the decisions and practices of our ancestors, our culture would not exist. But honoring the atavistic contract does not mean that culture should stagnate in a sort of endless reproduction, or that we should attempt to duplicate the circumstances of the past, instead, it is an agreement that we should emulate our ancestors’ work. Emulation is not imitation, but a building upon the work of past masters, a surpassing of the work already done.

F. Scott Hess’ painting The Dream of Art History perfectly captures the 20th Century disruption of the lineage of tradition. A vortex of paintings swirls across the large canvas, with hundreds of images illustrating the flow of the conversation between artists. It’s fun to identify the paintings. Millet’s Gleaners appears in the first two arcs, then, at the bottom left there is Matisse’s Dance, a Mondrian Composition, Malevich’s Black Square. — then shockingly, the front grill of a pickup smashes the spiral just above Magritte’s famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with his face covered by an apple, The Son of Man, and Salvador Dali’s melting clock in The Persistence of Memory.

A skeleton advances upon Hess’ self-portrait at the center of the painting and the three graces fly to his defense.

The spiral narrative of the paintings continues above the pickup’s interruption with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, a Lichtenstein, Chuck Close’s self-portrait and a Fischl cake. Then, in the final curve of the stream, a flow of images by living painters including an Adam Miller, an Aleah Chapin, and surprisingly, but typical of Hess’ wry sense of humor, a Loony Tunes Bugs Bunny. Then the pictures become a blur as the spiral runs into the future.

The history from which Imaginative Realism has grown is extraordinarily rich and includes imagery that is part of the flow of cultural interchange that organically shapes the evolution of all highly developed art. Chinese landscape paintings of the Song dynasty clearly influenced Roger Dean as he created his famous landscapes with wonderfully impossible, gravity-defying mountains and misty backgrounds.

Dean is in the habit of carrying a sketchbook with him when he travels, allowing him to capture dramatic scenes that may be useful to him in his studio. His famous arches of stone in Elbow Rock are based on scenes he sketched in the Utah desert. Dragon’s Garden, and The Watchtower — both iconic paintings of trees clinging to floating islands — are based on weather-shaped Monterey cypresses he drew while visiting the Californian peninsula. A tree uprooted by a storm near his home became the basis for the twisted branches in his Arches Mist. He is a landscape painter who takes his observations of reality and transforms them by asking “What if…?”

Dean hates the term “fantasy art.” And he’s right to resent it. “Fantasy art” evokes thoughts of fey children’s stories, and fairy tales, and conjures images of whimsical elegies, and immediately positions paintings and drawings in the forbidden world of superficiality, despite their often profound insights.

“Fantasy art” is a pejorative term used by art elitists to belittle people who love Imaginative Realism.

Along with the ancient Classical and Christian sources, with folk stories, with Prehistory, with the Baroque, precedents for Imaginative Realism may be found in Renaissance paintings like those of Sandro Botticelli, in Victorian illustrations of gothic horror and early science fiction; in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Burne-Jones and Waterhouse; in the delightful paintings and posters of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession; and later in popular 20th Century posters and album covers. Literature often led the way to the imagery.

The successful literature of 19th Century writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire laid the foundations for 20th Century authors like H. P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells to imagine fabulous worlds, and artists responded by producing illustrative imagery to accompany the texts.

Mark Gleason channels Poe, with his dark but mischievous paintings of theatrical moments played out at dusk and into the night. His characters are busy with strange acts that might turn nasty — a woman clutches a sledgehammer behind her back. A foolish man wearing a paper crown beholds a giant cockroach in the palm of his outstretched, open hand. These are strange visions, with the threat of violence lurking within them, but here too we find the ancient roots of the Judeo-Christian myth, in a fabulous painting of a fearsome man wielding the jawbone of an ass. Here is Samson of biblical fame in Gleason’s painting Arguing Still, capturing a moment from Judges 15.14.

“…the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.”

That Gleason’s shrieking Samson swings the jawbone among a field of poppies is surely not an accident — poppies are an ancient symbol of sleep and forgetfulness because of the opium they produce — bringing us from the pre-biblical era to the First World War, commemorated by Flanders’ blood-red poppies on Armistice Day, and to the recent past of the war in Afghanistan, where the poppy fields feed the West’s addiction. The painting also recalls memories of Kubrick’s magnificent 2001, A Space Odyssey, when the ape crushes the skull of his enemy and hurls the femur into the sky, where it transforms into a spinning space station. Using a biblical source is unusual in Gleason’s body of work, and he prefers to paint dramatic, dark images of frightening scenes, in which knives, snakes and black horses stand in as figures of fear, symbols cut from the same melancholy cloth as the poetry in Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.

Mark Poole deliberately mines the iconography of science fiction to imagine a world after the fall of an imaginary civilization, creating images of a distant future legend. His paintings invent a story of human life set after the end of a strangely alien mechanical age. The giant, rusted cogs he paints are set within beautiful untouched landscapes — they are archaic, steampunk artifacts, alluding to the failure of a mechanical society which nature has overtaken. We are strangers in a strange land in Poole’s world, which imagines a far future.

In Bryan Larsen’s work, we are much closer to home, even though he sets his work in outer space. From the lineage of science fiction imagery, blended with 19th Century studio technique, Larsen imagines scenes from a utopian technological future, placing spacecraft into traditionally painted landscapes. His figurative painting A Guest in the Garden resembles some of Bouguereau’s delightful images of children, but stretches far beyond the French master’s sometimes predictable subject matter, for Larsen chooses to place the people in his paintings in space stations or preparing to go outside to play in an alien landscape.

Sentiment draws us into A Guest in the Garden as we recognize the wonder and curiosity of the children as they gaze, fascinated, at a butterfly that lives within the fragile ecosystem of a starship that will one day deliver them to some far-off planet. These children are the future of humankind. Sentiment and hope are tied together here with a vision of our destiny in the stars. This is a vision of possibility. Larsen’s paintings are also reminiscent of the lofty work of Laurence Alma-Tadema, whose elegies to classical antiquity share the same sense of wonder at the scale of human achievement that Larsen puts into his work. Both artists are fascinated by height, placing figures in languid poses high up on architectural outcrops overlooking big landscapes, creating a powerful sense of the sublime as it is made accessible to people. Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog offered a sense of man’s intellectual superiority over nature as its Kantian protagonist surveys the mountaintop view, but Larsen and Alma-Tadema show us how humans participate within the sublime landscape and become equal to it, or even transcend it through our collective scientific and cultural achievements. There is a subtle sense of danger in their work, a lurking caution against hubris — reminding us of the biblical warning against building great unifying towers of Babel for fear of provoking the anger of God.

The history of Imaginative Realism has largely been neglected by art historians, who have been slow to respond to its immense popularity, but sometimes cultural changes are recognized well after their ascent — the Renaissance was one of the most significant periods of art history, but it wasn’t given its name until a century and a half after it had begun. By the 21st Century, Imaginative Realist painting, sculpture, film, and literature had become extraordinarily pervasive, yet it was overlooked as a tremendously significant cultural movement.

Something fresh is brewing in Western painting and sculpture. A large community of exceptional craftsmen and craftswomen is producing beautiful Imaginative Realist imagery that is firmly grounded in excellent traditional studio technique and has solid foundations in art history, yet clearly belongs to our time.

They are the Illusionists.

See works by “The Illusionists” at Studio Channel Islands March 30th — May 18, 2019.

Phone: 805.383.1368 | info@studiochannelislands.org

Studio Channel Islands, 2222 E Ventura Blvd. Camarillo, CA 93010

Michael J. Pearce

Written by

Michael Pearce is a figurative artist and author of “Art in the Age of Emergence.” In 2012 he founded The Representational Art Conference.

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