I recently had a conversation, via email and facetime, w/ my friend and colleague the watercolorist William Dubin. We were talking about the work of Michael Reardon, a watercolor painter that is getting a great deal of attention lately. We both had similar feelings about Mr. Reardon’s work, and Mr. Dubin was able to articulate them quite nicely in the following excerpted email:
“After we talked yesterday, I went back and looked at the magazine article I had on Michael Reardon, and a couple of things became even clearer. This stuff is SLICK… It’s a ‘production’, only instead of by a factory, it’s by one person, but the means of doing it are the same thing as a factory would use to produce a ‘product’. That’s what I hate about it and nearly every other watercolorist today: They PRODUCE A PRODUCT.”
“I’m too much of a 1950′s artist. I spent too much time in A.E. (Abstract Expressionism,) and looking at those painters prior to A.E. like Sargent who WORKED in a similar fashion. The work fed itself, developed IN itself, and reached it’s OWN conclusion. The artist was (is) a catalyst to make these things happen, they are NOT the producer of a play!
“Reardon, and most watercolorists today stand outside of the painting. They DIRECT how it goes together, rather than DISCOVER it. There’s no personal involvement and there are no failures, because once you have the ‘method’ down failure is programed out. watercolor suffers in comparison to oils, in that you can’t get in and FEEL the paint. I think the thing I try hardest to do is to enjoy the involvement WITH the paint – something that may be impossible given the medium, but it’s a big part of what I’m after.
“Do you remember what the 1960′s & 70′s called ‘the happy accident?’ Can you see a painter like Reardon indulging in that, or do you think those things are BANNED from his work! I don’t want to return to Pollack, but I think painting could certainly profit from a touch of EMOTIONALISM right now, because all I see in the watercolor magazines is Stepford Wives art! Prozac in paint! Emotion-less exercises in Graphic Design. In other words a PRODUCT!
“The sad thing is I think very few would find fault with the concept of simply making product. After all, you do art to sell, right? I loved the European concept of art as experiment, the artist as alchemist, the studio as a place of wonder where magic things happened. That’s 100% missing in our capitalist productions of today, even the damn grandmothers in the watercolor societies think about what makes for a salable painting!!!!!!!!!!!”
Like William Dubin, I have many of the same concerns about Reardon’s work. I think that his years of success as an architectural renderer have made him little inclined to experiment beyond a few carefully placed washes and some finicky detail. I would like to see more; the man clearly has some skill, though not as much as his supporters claim.
I would like to contrast his work with that of a watercolor artist living in India, Ramesh Jhawar. I think that Mr. Jhawar clearly has some of what Mr. Dubin feels is missing from Reardon’s work. There is certainly some emotion here, and a spontaneity and command of materials that is both more confident and more relaxed.
I would not call Mr. Jhawar a great technician, as that is not what comes to mind when looking at his work. Rather his technique is sufficient to his expression, which is I think a more difficult and elusive quality.
I think that what Mr. Jhawar’s work really communicates is the simple joy of being alive, of being attuned to the subtle changes and surges of sunlight as the community goes about its business. There is a connectedness about Mr. Jhawar’s paintings that is totally missing from Mr. Reardon’s. Even a great painter of alienation must feel the burden of loneliness and regret that alienation entails. A recorder of marks and silhouettes must weave such into a language of feeling, or there is no art there. Robert Henri once remarked, and I am paraphrasing him, that the painter’s brushwork is like a lie detector. One cannot help but express what one is experiencing at the moment the brush is laid to canvas (or paper.) Good and great painting share one thing in common; the ability to communicate the artist’s pleasure and desperation. I see that in the work of Ramesh Jhawar. I don’t see it in the paintings of Michael Reardon.