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Michael Pearce: Art in the Age of Emergence

Magician by Michael Pearce.jpg
"Magician" by Michael Pearce.

Massive, mythical and brimming with allegorical subtext, Michael Pearce's paintings demonstrate a subtle alchemy all their own -- the transformation of ordinary oil paint and canvas into narratives that embrace the magic and romance of an earlier era.

In "Imperium," a man clasping a wand and orb holds audience with a horned woman with morning glory vines erupting from her mouth. "The Words (Priestess)" features two women sprawled over a pentacle examining a manuscript, while "The Hanging Man" finds the titular character suspended in mid-air by his foot, reaching for the mossy message he sees on a stone below.

Due to their scale and their subject matter, Pearce's paintings "require you to pay attention," said the English figurative painter, who has lived and worked in Southern California since 1990. "I want to the viewers to be more contemplative. I really would like for them to go away from the paintings and think about them ... maybe come to some conclusion about their lives."

Artist Michael Pearce stands in front of his painting "Endless War." | Photo: Brian Stethem
Artist Michael Pearce stands in front of his painting "Endless War." | Photo: Brian Stethem

Pearce, who's based in Ventura County, draws inspiration from the rich traditions of the late medieval period and the Pre-Raphaelites. But his artistic journey began with his interest in a revolutionary of the Italian baroque movement -- that tempestuous master of chiaroscuro, Michelangelo Mersisi da Caravaggio.

"I longed to paint like Caravaggio ... and no one could teach me," Pearce recalled. "I just couldn't find anyone who was interested or excited about the idea of painting like the old masters painted." So he taught himself with the help of the book "Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts" by Virgil Elliott.

"I went to art school for one year and there was clearly no future in it for me," Pearce said. "They wanted us to make piles of shoes and use string to draw with. It was just not at all what I was interested in." Instead, he studied scenic design at the now-closed Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England, later earning his master's degree at the University of Southern California and his doctorate at England's Plymouth University.

Today, Pearce is an associate professor of art at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks and curator of the university's Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture.

"The Words (Priestess)" by Michael Pearce
"The Words (Priestess)" by Michael Pearce

He's also the co-founder and chair of The Representational Art Conference in Ventura, an annual event aimed at exploring the possibilities of contemporary representational art.

Keynote speakers at this year's conference, being held Nov. 1 through 4, include Monterey sculptor Richard MacDonald; Elliot Bostwick Davis, author and curator of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts; and Fred Ross, founder and chairman of the Art Renewal Center in New York City. Also featured is Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London.

"It's heartwarming to be surrounded by so many people who are enthusiastic about the conference and excited what we're doing," Pearce said.

The painter has also been forging connections with the Central Coast art scene. His work was featured along with that of his students, Hüicho Lé and Harold Muliadi, in the exhibition "In a New World" in April at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.

Pearce will return to Paso Robles on May 22 to deliver the keynote address at this year's Paso Artsfest, held Memorial Day weekend. The subject of his talk, "Art in the Age of Emergence," is also the title of his book, published in January by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

The painter recently took a break from working on his current series "Veil" -- which explores ideas of concealment and control with images of nude models draped in sheer fabrics and plastics -- to speak about the subject.

&quotImperium" by Michael Pearce
"Imperium" by Michael Pearce

Let's begin by talking about "Art in the Age of Emergence." What is emergence in this context?

Let's start with a very commonly used metaphor. ... If you look at water and you want to understand wetness, probably the worst thing you can do is break it down into oxygen and hydrogen. You're not going to understand wetness by looking inward and downward.

Emergent qualities are those things that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Another great example that I particularly like is the murmuration of starlings. It's when the starlings all flock and swirl around the sky in those elegant, graceful (formations) that are so fluid and wonderful. If you break down the flock of starlings and look at one bird, you're not going to get any idea about that movement, that fluidity of the flock. ...

Our culture is the result of a collective consciousness -- the ideas we share and the ideas we express collectively. That too is a emergent quality.

What makes this the age of emergence?

Emergence has become more prevalent in the sciences in the last 30 or 40 years. It hasn't yet really taken root in the arts. That's why I'm so interested in trying to build aesthetics out of emergence. So I'm only using the term 'art in the age of emergence' as an expression that the postmodern age is coming to an end. We're really run out of meaningful aesthetics in post-modernity.

"Self Portrait While Dreaming" by Michael Pearce
"Self Portrait While Dreaming" by Michael Pearce

What do you see as that next step?

I suspect that what we're going to see is an interest in art that belongs to the people more democratically. The aesthetics that are implied by emergence are more based on the roots, on kitsch art.

I think that we're going to see more and more art that is a little sentimental, perhaps, more and more art that appeals to emotion rather than appealing to high-end high art.

We're getting away from (Immanuel) Kant and the idea of disinterested interest, which is the idea that you're looking at art without any emotional tug of the work upon you. You're to step back from that emotional appeal and go for the intellectual engagement with art.

Emergent art is very much based on modern human experience. The art appeals to the people. And then you flip the aesthetics ... so you're looking from the bottom up rather than from the top down ...

How does your work fit into the idea of the new emergent aesthetics?

I'm interested in the way of looking at the world through the kitsch lens, the more emotional response ... (So) you're getting something greater than the sum of the parts.

I think emergent art is going to be the kind of work that is skillfully made, that has emotional appeal and yet has intellectual content too -- so that you're able to engage at the higher level and at the emotional level.

And it's sincere art, too. This emergent art is the real thing. When you look at it, you know the artist meant it -- unlike some of the more postmodern work that we've seen for 20 or 30 years which is pretty cynical and skeptical and ironic. This emergent art is more open, more honest, more sincere, more sentimental, more emotionally appealing.

"Angel of Death" by Michael Pearce
"Angel of Death" by Michael Pearce

You're a big proponent of skill-based art. Why do you feel we've moved away from that?

You have to go back 100 years for that (answer) -- all the way to the Dadaists in World War I. They're so repulsed by modernity and the dehumanization that comes with modernity that they reject that violently and become quite nihilistic, in fact. They don't want anything to do with it, and then you see a reinvention of the world.

You know, we're not going to reinvent the world. Our experiences haven't changed the world really, fundamentally. Our DNA is exactly the same as the DNA of neolithic people. I don't think we've evolved in any way like that.

Are you trying to harken back to an earlier tradition of creating art -- learning from a master before branching off on your own?

I think that's a pretty good way of doing it. ... Skill is something that we always appreciate. When you look at something that's really well made, the quality, that's important to us. We care about quality. And we care about authenticity too. I think skillfulness is part of that.

When we look at an artist who does something really, really well, they come out of the crowd. They've done something more than what normal people can do. They've done something extraordinary.

It's just like an athlete. When you see an athlete who's really on top of their form, you appreciate how much work they've done to get to that point of being excellent.

Excellence, I think, is all part of emergence. ... If you think about what makes up excellence, it's not just skill. You can be very, very skillful but make very boring paintings or boring furniture or boring houses.

"I Think I Love You" by Michael Pearce
"I Think I Love You" by Michael Pearce

It's fascinating that you've formulated these ideas while based in Southern California, which is a culture associated with disposability and transience.

Even here we see our desire for quality. ... Southern California is still young, and that's what makes it so exciting. What are the emergent qualities of this place going to be? What is it that we collectively create and express in our culture?
That's tremendously exciting, actually. I think taking the long view is probably a good way to go.

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Do you see those qualities in your students?

Yes. They're growing up in a time when they can get training and find a place to use their skills and (discover) the ways that people have done painting for years and years -- which is quite different than the way it was in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, when it was very, very hard to find traditional studio training.

Many people who come to TRAC have told us the same story -- that in the late part of the 20th century, they just couldn't find any training, and they had to do it themselves. They told us many sad stories of how they were left out of art school or rejected because they wanted to make representational art.

It's really wonderful to see these young people who are finding the training they need and flourishing. There's an extraordinary amount of really great, quality art being produced right now that doesn't get any of the attention it really deserves, frankly. ...

The ideas are very much about our time. They're not painting paintings that look like 19th century (artworks). They're painting paintings that you would never mistake for anything but work that's being made right now. I think that's cause for celebration.

"The Day" by Michael Pearce
"The Day" by Michael Pearce

Let's talk about TRAC, which you started with Cal Lutheran lecturer and Los Angeles artist Michael Lynn Adams in 2012. What was your original vision for the conference?

Both of us are figurative representational painters. Mike had gone down to visit with Alexey Steele in Carson. He met up with seven or eight really good painters -- Richard Schmid was there, for example, and Jeremy Lipking -- and he came back seeming really energy and refreshed. ... I started thinking, "Gosh, I wish there was something like that available in the academic world."

Until we did TRAC, there were literally no conferences at all about representational art -- which is a strange absence, because there was then and is now a huge amount of representational art, and a very large community of people who are interested in representational art. It seemed like a big gap that needed filling.

So we went to see Chris Kimball, who is the president of Cal Lutheran, and explained what we wanted to do and that we believed it would be successful. And he had the courage to let us do it.

What was the reaction?

Extraordinary. The people who came to it were just so thrilled. We heard over and over again these stories from people who said they'd been alone and they'd felt so isolated and now they didn't feel alone anymore. There's a very strong sense of community and a sense of hopefulness that simply wasn't there before.

Veil piece by Michael Pearce
Veil piece by Michael Pearce

Who is your target audience for TRAC?

Academics, artists, critics, all the thought leaders. We want anyone who's got an interest in representational art.

People misunderstand a little bit what we're about sometimes. We're not really there in order to provide a plan. We're there to provide a platform and to give people a place to talk about representational art -- but not necessarily to provide concrete ideas and polemic and dogma about what representational art is or what it should be doing. We want to provide the space for people to come up with that ...

The official mission of TRAC is "exploring representational art's place in the new millennium." What do you see as its place at this time?

I don't think that representational art is going to supplant or destroy or take the place of any of the art that's being made right now. But I think that representational art deserves and will have a place at the table ... that it hasn't had for probably the last 100 years.

Have we ever in the history of man just completely stop doing things which we find part of a bigger valuable experience? We don't stop because something else comes along. We don't stop weaving by hand because a loom comes along. We continue these traditions and we appreciate them and we appreciate human skill in those things.

There's plenty of room for the human experience to be expressed in representational art -- in any art.

So there will always be a place for art created by human hands?

Yes, absolutely. ... You want the real thing. When you buy a print, you know it's a print and you're not going to pay top dollar for a print. But you will play top dollar for a Rubens or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. We're hungry for authenticity.

"Hanged Man" by Michael Pearce
"Hanged Man" by Michael Pearce

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