Fred Schley, ‘Skye – Made in Holland’, An Tuireann, Isle of Skye, 4th March – 15th April, 2006
We have all been told in various ways by a glittering array of Modernist artists and critics that to meticulously copy the appearances of nature, or anything else in the world for that matter, is not, in fact, to produce proper art. This line of thinking maintains that art ought not to be a literal transcription of the world around us, instead it must involve a transformation of what superficially appears in order to access what mystically inheres. The list of artists involved in wresting art from a suppliant relationship with the world of appearances to resituate it in a world of abstract, symbolist and expressionist picturing, includes some intimidating names. Paul Gauguin, for example, offered this guidance: ‘Don’t copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it.’ Wassily Kandinsky, to name but one more, pronounced: ‘abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with reality, next to the real world’.
Unsurprisingly, when set against the persuasive and lingering power of that philosophy of art, photorealist painting can fall foul of critics who praise above all else what they see as art’s necessary visual difference from reality. In Fred Schley’s case, then, the critic who favours that philosophy would fault our artist’s devoted attention to the actual landscapes of Skye, and would disown the painted results, because, like all other bona fide photorealists, Schley depends on the external apparatus of the camera – the inanimate opposite of Gauguin’s and Kandinsky’s inner expressionist lens. So, to borrow Kandinsky’s terms and to reverse them, whether it is landscape, cityscape or portrait, for better or for worse, Schley’s painting has everything to do with reality for he faithfully copies the real world and places it next to itself.
But negative criticism of photorealism on these grounds commonly makes three interpretative mistakes, all of which result from the persistent and enigmatic power of photo-based high-illusionism. By taking each of the three in turn, this brief essay might encourage the hardened Modernist critic and related sceptics to return to photorealist painting, not merely to see again appearances of reality as if the painting were a picture postcard, nor to be bewildered by a mesmerising technical feat, rather, to experience what this kind of painting can reveal of the inherent qualities of its subject matter. There is a great deal more going on in Fred Schley’s painting than meets the eye alone.
The first mistake is easily redressed, although some may be surprised that it is necessary to do so at all. Call to mind Rene Magritte’s famous painting, The Use of Words 1 1929. Written in oil paint under a trompe l’œil depiction of a smoker’s pipe are the words, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Such an object-lesson in the linguistic nature of all art, of all imagery, is so easily forgotten in our age of televisual communication, but its message is straightforward and crucial: whether the Modernist dreaming of Gauguin, the illusionism of Magritte or the photorealist picturing of Schley, art is always and only ever a parallel reality. Magritte’s pipe, despite its beguiling and credible appearance, is only paint. High-illusionism is incredibly deceptive, and here the photographic picture postcard and the snapshot excel. Both can readily convince the viewer of the presence of objects only represented or transport the viewer to the location depicted: ‘wish you were here’ can almost be ‘now you are here’. Notwithstanding Magritte’s long-standing caution, this first revision is still necessary today. Schley’s Coire Lagan is not Coire Lagan, his Loch Greshorn is not Loch Greshorn, his Polly and Others is not Polly and the others. Gauguins and Kandinskys take note, Schley’s painting, like every other form of art, is representation, it is abstract, it cannot but be a mode of transformation.
Secondly, it is not the case that the photorealist operates mechanically in the construction of the painted image as if he were no more than a glorified camera shutter; he does not instantly manifest the image on a photo-sensitive canvas. The photographic appearance of the paintings belies careful editing and selection central to Schley’s work. Take Cuillins from Glen Brittle 2004. Like many of the others in the exhibition this painting was composed from information Schley gathered from a range of photographs of the landscape; he does not slavishly copy the visual data held within any one of those sources.
Proof of this is the internal logic of the work. Treating the scene on one level as an arrangement of compositional elements, to be gleaned from more than one photograph when necessary, Schley has installed a brilliantly subtle plastic harmony. The clouds, startling in their lightness and verisimilitude, mirror the massive structures of the mountains and the terrain in the foreground. In fact, the clouds immediately above the Cuillins delicately correspond to the specific peaks on the ridge. In addition, the striated clouds in the top third of the picture answer the meandering scarring of the rocks below: the ephemeral and the atmospheric take a symbolic lead from the formations of the world underneath, and vice versa, a pictorial co-dependency carefully wrought by the artist. Monumental, expansive, massive and delicate, ancient and here-and-now; this is something of what the Cuillins are, inherently, and Schley’s painting exposes a mutuality beyond the bounds of visible phenomena, one to be seen only in the parallel world of art. Much more, then, than a miniaturised version of the Skye landscape born from a snapshot, Cuillins from Glen Brittle is typical of Schley’s composed visual poetry, of his ability to conjure something mystical and enduring out of a collection of mere appearances.
A third misconception that bedevils the interpretation of photorealist painting results from a kind of visual complacency. It is not the case that a photograph presents the world to us as we normally see it. None of us sees like a camera, and when we read a photograph as if it is a replication of an aspect of the world as we believe we would see it, that is only because we are calling to mind in the process the appearance of other photographs. Those whose aesthetic judgement follows a Kandinsky or a Gauguin should remind themselves that the photograph is also a transformation of the world as it appears to us humans.
Take Ullinish Sunset 2004. Whilst it is still true to say that Schley does not create a dream-like reconfiguration of the world as performed by Gauguin and Kandinsky, he does exploit the camera in order to greatly heighten aspects of visible reality. The stark contour of the mountain range in twilight is seen as it cannot be seen by the naked eye. The camera preserves the exactness of that contour where the eye would allow an infusion of light to impinge on its purity. This characteristic of camera-seeing is exploited in Ullinish Sunset, and the sharpness and definitiveness of that focus is doubly meaningful next to the amorphous, glowing and ever-changing sky. What appears to be what we would see in actuality is, in actual fact, a privileged insight which only the camera can provide. This is never clearer than in To Cuillins from Drynoch 2005. In this painting the camera allows us to enjoy a limitless and simultaneous depth of focus. From the looming foreground through to the furthest rocky outcrop, from the fixed viewpoint beneath our feet to the resonant break in the clouds above, we are given something bordering on the uncanny, a positively surreal insight into the awesome character of Skye.
By quickly raising these three commonplace misjudgements of photorealism, it might be a little easier to approach Schley’s style of painting as a visual language which can indeed invoke, amongst other things, what mystically inheres, this time by way of a meditation on appearances rather than a dreamlike transfiguration of them but with equally powerful results. Whereas the two great modern artists cited here typically looked inwards for an expressive reflection of their world, Schley, in true photorealist fashion, looks outwards with guidance from the camera, but with no lesser desire for visual poetry. Yes, the actual appearances of the Skye landscape have never been seen in sharper focus, but gradually we recognise so much more beyond the illusionistic details – through concentration on Schley’s meticulous surfaces we meet a constant depth.