In Conversation with Devin Cecil
Devin Cecil -Wishing is a New York City-based artist and teacher who uses traditional oil painting techniques to create highly rendered still life paintings known for their vibrant light effects and sumptuous color harmonies. While Devin’s paintings exemplify a rare mastery of traditional techniques and academic skill, the real fascination of his work lies beyond the merely technical. Exploiting deceptively simple objects he weaves elegant compositions that evoke the serenity of an ethereal dream. The choices of subject matter often speak of a childlike sincerity and yet leave the impression of a more mysterious and elusive experience. Despite a full schedule of painting and teaching at the renowned Grand Central Atelier, Devin spent an evening speaking with me online from his studio in midtown Manhattan to discuss some of the more conceptual aspects of his process.
I’ll begin with what is perhaps a helpful prelude to this discussion. There seems to be some uncertainty among current realist painters regarding the preferred term to apply to their work. How do you describe the kind of genre you’re working within?
DCW: That can be a tricky question. When people ask me what I do I generally just tell them that I’m a painter, or I might say that I’m a traditional oil painter, even though that could be said of any painter really since we’re all working within some kind of tradition. Most of the terms I hear used these days seem somewhat problematic in one way or another once you really start to dissect them a bit. I think the challenge is that a lot of representational painters are struggling to find a single term to encompass what are actually many different genres of European painting that occurred over several centuries before impressionism, along with the current group of traditional or representational painters, while at the same time excluding any of the twentieth century painters who would be considered “modernists” in one way or another. ‘Academic Realism’, ‘Imaginative Realism’, ‘Kitsch Painting’ and Traditional Realist Oil Painting’ are some of the terms that you hear being used by different people and each one feels sort of clunky or not quite right to me in its own way. ‘Classical Realism’ is probably the one that I hear most frequently. For the sake of convenience I use it sometimes even though it’s a term which I find particularly nonsensical.
‘Classical realism’ does seem to be the most common term we hear among the current realist painting community. Why do you call it nonsensical?
Classicism is the pursuit of an ideal. It’s a set of ideas regarding proportions and specific stylizations which trace directly back to a specific era and geographical region. To “classicize” something means to take reality and distort it to fit in to a preordained set of ideals in order to create the most “correct” or most “beautiful” version of that thing according to a specific formula. Those formulas are oftentimes presented as being somewhat timeless or universal but ultimately, they originate from Ancient Greece which was a very particular time and place. Other cultures have created their own ideals of beauty which are quite different from the ancient Greeks. I think it’s important to remember that we are really speaking about a very specifically European form of art here. To me, working in a truly classical way really just means to stylize things in a specific way. Realism on the other hand, seeks to depict nature without embellishment. To a realist the beauty lies not in making reality conform to an ideal, but rather in all the particularities that make that individual person or subject uniquely different than another subject. To me, these seem like two diametrically opposed philosophies and so to put them together to describe contemporary representational painting doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. To be clear, I think it’s perfectly fine to emulate a certain style of painting if it’s something that resonates with you, but it seems somewhat arbitrary to me the way that classicism is oftentimes presented as being some objective standard of beauty or somehow universally agreed upon to be the best form of stylization. Beauty is subject to all kinds of personal, cultural, regional and societal norms, not to mention politics and markets. I don’t think most of the painters being described as classical realists are particularly adhering to the Greek ideals at all. The term seems to very broadly indicate simply that they are painting things in a way which generally looks similar to the things that are being painted.
So you’re essentially rejecting the concept of an objective and universal ideal of beauty?
DCW: I am. At the heart of the classical vs realist debate are the underlying ideas that beauty is found either in ultimate order or in infinite variety. I would personally tend to gravitate towards the latter. Trying to fit our ideas into some preordained template of beauty by definition leads to a lack of variety. Once you’ve decided on a “proper” way for a figure to look, your figures will inevitably begin to all look the same. You can see plenty of examples of this in the french neo-classical painters. There are a lot of things about those paintings which I love, but I’m always somewhat put off by the fact that the people all look the same. It feels like going to a plastic surgeons office in Hollywood and watching everyone leave with the same exact upturned nose and grotesquely overinflated lips. That doesn’t resonate with me as being what beauty is all about. I have a very difficult time relating to the idea that there’s one correct or perfect way for things to look. A flower is beautiful in a very different kind of way than a lobster but I’m really not sure that I could say that one is more beautiful than the other. There’s a tendency I see in a lot of people when they first start learning to paint, which is to rely on supposedly beautiful subject matter in order to make their painting beautiful. I always think that’s a mistake. I strongly advocate that you shouldn’t rely on your subject matter to make your painting beautiful or interesting. A painting of a rusty tin can can be gorgeous if we observe it closely enough and paint it beautifully.
That is a compelling argument against the classical ideal. Does this mean that you’re instead committed to the realist approach?
[laughs] I actually don’t really think of myself as a hardcore realist either. I do play up or play down the drama in mywork which means that it’s really not a strict reportage style. A number of years ago I stumbled across the term “Poetic Realism” which is an idea that the Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond used to describe his aesthetic approach to film. It was an idea which immediately felt relatable to me. The idea was to take an overall realist approach, but with a little bit of poetry added in here and there to amplify your statement. This made perfect sense to me because it seemed to me that he was advocating for a middle path. Extreme artistic philosophies sound great within the context of pure rhetoric, but in practice they tend to lead to fairly stiff art and ultimately, usually have a logical conclusion and therefore run their course.
In general though, all of these terms and sub-genres are really only serving two purposes. When an artist adopts one of these terms they’re really just saying who/what they want to be associated with and who/what they would not like to be associated with. For example, because “painter” is such a broad term, an artist who paints representationally might not want to be grouped in with minimalists or abstract-expressionists, so they might call themselves a “realist painter”. Then in addition to that, they may also want it to be known that they’re working with subject matter that’s more traditional than other somewhat realistic painters such as John Currin or Mark Ryden, or somebody like that.So then they add a word like “classical” to the title of “realist painter” as a sort of modifier. This specifies which group they’re with and not with but with the addition of each modifier they end up in a smaller and smaller box. Soin the broadest sense, I would tend to simply call myself a painter and I think that’s a pretty good term. It’s the thing that I do. I paint.
You mentioned earlier that all painters are working within some kind of tradition. Can you say more about these traditions that you’re referring to and in what kinds of ways contemporary artists play a role in these traditions?
DCW: Whenever we emulate another artist’s work in some way, we’re working within a tradition. None of us invented oil paint or the idea of rubbing it on a canvas, so to some extent there’s an overall tradition that any painter is inevitably a part of. European representational painting has been around for a pretty long time, so when I speak about traditional oil painting, I’m speaking very broadly about hundreds of years of western art history. I actually don’t think there’s anything particularly old fashioned about painting representationally but it was certainly more fashionable for a long time than it is right now. I think that because of that, it’s easy for it to be viewed as somewhat old fashioned. Even for current painters who work in a more traditional style, it can be easy to get caught up in a somewhat old-timey aesthetic. I think when that happens it can sometimes feel a little bit like the painting is trying to be passed off as an antique even though it may have only been painted last year. When I see a current painting of a figure wearing some kind of period costume I can’t help but wonder if the artist is genuinely interested in that type of clothing for some reason or if it’s because they just love the paintings that came from that era and in a kind of Pavlovian way are making some kind of association between the two things. Sometimes it feels a bit like these accessories and aesthetic choices can end up attaching themselves like barnacles to the ships of our paintings and are just coming along for the ride. I find it important for my own personal growth to question those things and ask myself whether I actually like something, or if I’m just doing it because I associate it with paintings that I love. As an analogy with music, I think a talented guitarist could
learn to play the blues in a way that sounds a lot like Robert Johnson, but trying to pass off a new recording as a recently unearthed original from the thirties isn’t going to fool anyone who’s tuned in to those kinds of things. The sound would have a discernibly of- this-era quality because the human psyche is in a different place now and I don’t think we can escape from where we are. Similarly, I think it would be incredibly difficult to make a contemporary pop song now that completely ignores the existence of everything that came before it. The influence of everything that came before us has already been felt in our being.
Are you therefore advocating a deliberate departure from the past?
To some degree, it’s always inevitable for artists to depart from the past even if they’re consciously trying not to. Of course, a lot of the history of 20th and 21st Century art fetishizes the idea of breaking from the past to the point of ridiculousness. There’s been a societal expectation for over a hundred years now that it’s the obligation of the contemporary artist to completely dismantle the entirety of Western art history that I think is somewhat ego driven and always feels a little childish to me. Over the course of hundreds of years, traditional European painting as an art form has evolved a visual language of it’s own and every artist working today in any of the traditions which have grown out of that can’t help but be influenced by it. I’ve spent a lot of my time studying that visual language and even if I had an inclination to try to walk away from that, the influence would still be there even in completely unconscious ways which I wouldn’t even necessarily be aware of. In the same way that, as an English speaker, if I were to try to throw out all the rules of English and speak complete gibberish, it would still be kind of an English-based form of gibberish. If a Hindi speaker tried the same thing, they would inevitably have a Hindi-based form of gibberish. Our influences run deep and I don’t think that we can ultimately escape that completely.
So in our dialogue with the past are you therefore suggesting a balance between tradition and innovation?
What I’m saying is that, like it or not, some kind of balance will ultimately exist. We can’t go back in time and we can’t escape the influence of the past either. I prefer to think of myself as a student of both past and present artists. I obviously have been very influenced by looking at art from the past but there are a lot of contemporary artists who I love, many of whom work in very different styles than I do.
Are you therefore conscious of how the subject matter you choose for your still life paintings are specifically dated as opposed to timeless?
DCW: I do lean somewhat towards the idea that I would like to make images that feel timeless in a way, but then again what does that really mean? An Iphone is clearly of the present moment in that it didn’t exist until fairly recently, and fairly soon I imagine it will be replaced by something else. By comparison, a seashell is fairly timeless in terms of a human conception of time at least. Similar seashells could have existed millions of years ago and similar seashells may exist millions of years in to the future. If you were to zoom out far enough, they belong to a specific era too though I suppose. I think there’s a common misconception that anything old becomes timeless. A French porcelain doll from the 19th Century may not relate to this particular moment in time, but it still relates to a very specific time and place. If you had a grouping of similar items arranged in to a still life it would speak to that particular point in time. Rather than occupy a particular point in the past or present I’m more interested in disrupting the sense of time itself so that the painting becomes a place where time almost ceases to exist. With a variety of subjects which relate to time differently from one another, and an intentionally open-ended narrative I think a painting can become truly timeless in that sense. This allows for a new and unique invention that isn’t easily definable.
In the past you’ve excelled at portrait and figure painting. Why have you settled on the genre of still life as your primary focus?
DCW: There’s a child like playfulness in composing a still life that reminds me of the way we all set up our toys in to elaborate arrangements as children. What I’m particularly drawn to are the possibilities of open ended narratives that the still life genre lends itself to particularly well. There are many narrative paintings in museums which I love that tell a very clear story, but in my own work I tend to be more drawn to the idea of an implied narrative that is intentionally left open ended. I like knowing that two different viewers can walk away with two very different experiences. When you give the audience the space to bring their own experiences in to the equation the viewing experience can become more personal in a way. As someone spends more time with the painting, their own narratives and associations are free to develop. The act of observing the picture isn’t meant to be passive. It’s inactive, participatory activity. By really participating each viewer can have a more rewarding experience and what results can in some ways be considered a collaboration between the artist and the viewer. Oftentimes as I’m working on a piece, I find myself coming up with a narrative or an idea of what the painting is about, which I didn’t necessarily have in mind when I first set it up. There’s a tendency sometimes to think that the artists version of the story or concept is the authoritative version, but I like the idea that I’m just another viewer of the painting. My version isn’t particularly any more valid than anyone else just because I happened to paint it.
Can you explain your internal process of conceiving of an idea or theme? What inspires you?
DCW: The conception and the execution are two very different processes for me. Even though the second is very analytical in some ways, the first is very intuitive. I usually begin with a central idea and think of it as a keystone that will eventually unify the entire painting. In this context the word “idea” can often mean something like a subtle quality of light that I want the painting to have which will give a certain type of feeling. Usually it’s something that I can’t quite put in to words but is still quite specific. Fundamentally, the experience of light is what’s most important to me and it tends to be the driving factor behind a lot of my paintings. I Couldn’t say exactly where these ideas come from but I find that I almost never deliberately conceive of them. They seem to show up out of the blue when I’m walking down the street or doing the dishes or something like that. The key is maintaining a state of mind that is open to the arrival of these ideas. What is also very important to me is that I allow the painting to become whatever it wants to become. I spend a great deal of time playing with the elements. There’s a lot of adding and subtracting and the final assembly of objects rarely looks very similar to what I originally envisioned. Part of the design process can be quite formal and simply seeks to create a visually well balanced composition. What’s more important ultimately though is that it ends up expressing the original feeling that I started with, though that can be a tricky thing to pin down, and sometimes the mood changes in subtle ways while I’m painting. The most nuanced color relationships can lead to significant shifts in how the painting will be perceived and can alter the feel of things very quickly. Throughout the entire process I always want to allow myself to follow my intuition. If a path feels right you have to trust that it’s for a reason and let it take you where it will.
In recent years I’ve also begun to think a lot more about the effect that viewing a painting can potentially have on a viewer. For a long time I didn’t think much beyond the idea of making a cool image and creating something that would show off to people how good I was at painting. I still think those are nice things, but in the last few years I’ve really begun to be attracted to the idea of paintings as being almost medicinal in a way. I think the spaces that we inhabit can have dramatic effects on our psyches and I’ve been more and more interested in the idea of trying to create spaces inside of my paintings that feel on some level like a space in which a viewer may benefit from inhabiting for a little while. I think the experience of viewing great artwork can be uplifting or even transcendental at times and whether I achieve it or not, I’m interested in striving towards having that effect on a potential viewer.
You mentioned the importance of the experience of light. The light effects in your paintings are indeed striking to the point that the objects seem to play a supporting role to light itself. Can you tell us something about the way you think about the depiction of light?
The experience and depiction of light is what I’ve always felt most drawn to in painting. I think that everyone is fascinated by something, and for me, it’s that. To me, nothing seems to convey emotion and mood in quite the way that light can. If you think about it, the visual experience of light is about as close as anything gets to a constant in this world. Fashion and technology may have changed, but light works exactly the same way as it did for artists in the Renaissance. In a very real sense, the objects in the paintings are almost dead or nonexistent until the light awakens them to life like a Pinocchio puppet. It’s only through the direct observation of light that I can discover all of the fascinating and unexpected things that happen in a subject and this is why working from life is so necessary.
How do you consider the relationship between technique and artistry?
We could take the position that these two things are completely inseparable or we could say that they’re totally distinct from one another. I think the truth is that it’s a complex relationship. The problem with so many art schools today is that they skip the technical stages and jump straight into “art making”. If I wanted to write Italian poetry I Think that it would be rather presumptuous of me to assume that I could do it without first learning to speak Italian. In the end I might turn out to be great poet, or I might not be very good at all, but there would be no way of knowing unless I first learned the language. An introductory “English as a Second Language” class is very different from a creative writing class. You sort of need to learn the language before you can write your novel. I think ultimately that there are a lot of different kinds of artists out there. For some of them, their technique becomes an integral part of what their art is all about. Other people gain a fairly basic technical ability and then use that as a jumping off place for other types of explorations which are less concerned with the technical aspects of the work. I think it all comes down to what fascinates you personally. What’s the thing that gets you to keep coming back to the studio and continuing to make art. It’s a big world and I tend to think that there is enough room for all the different types of artists out there. Which I suppose all circles back to what I said earlier about believing that beauty lies in the infinite variation.