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Realizing Realism: Josh Moulton

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BY MEGAN BONKE

I want to start a conversation about "realism", but I’m not supposed to use that word.  Realism, representationalism, observationalism, and verisimilitude: mum words that a majority of my professors told me to avoid in my elevator speech describing my work. There are those that believe realism is irrelevant, having been defeated by the invention and accessibility of photography. Identifying myself as a realist would be putting myself in a visual box.  The pressure when I was an undergraduate student was to expand my stylistic horizons and embrace strong concepts in my work. All but two of my painting professors, Marion Kryczka and Dan Guston, saw aesthetics and formal training as secondary to concept.

I practically grew up at the Art Institute of Chicago, where my first painting idols became Manet, Monet, Van Gough, and Cassatt.  Impressionists and Post Impressionists were all around me. I loved seeing the visual journey from luscious gestural paintings to broken down forms and subdued colors, to bold primary colors accompanying geometric simplification (while the Impressionists continued to always observe the world around them).  Following Impressionism on the timeline of art, we see Dali’s dreams come to life, Rauschenberg’s evocative, whitewashed collages, Duchamp's clever urinal, and Pollock’s volatile splatters.  Western painting begins to have dozens of conversations about reaching beyond the physical. But still the realists came along: Hopper, Wood, Rockwell, Freud, Saville, and Richter. So, why are artists still painting from life? Why haven’t all painters delved into ever expanding tangents of abstraction?  What future value does realism hold in the art world?

I have ventured out to find some comrades in the fight for verisimilitude—painters who approach representational art in their own way and are finding they still have a place in the art world.

This is the first interview in a three-part series. To begin, I spoke with artist Josh Moulton, a painter who works strictly from photographs, making him a photorealist. I often wonder what photographs lend as well as take away from a piece—a tension that Gwendolyn Zabicki touches on in the second edition of this conversation. Last, we will hear from Jim Dee, an artist who turned to abstraction but even surprised himself to discover his work reflected visual observations from his daily activities.

Painter Josh Moulton, owner of Josh Moulton Fine Art Gallery, has been part of the Chicago art scene for over a decade. His gallery, located not far from the lakefront on Clark St. in Lincoln Park, is a Chicago resource for finding a unique remembrance piece for any art savant or traveler. The images Moulton paints are familiar and candid, and he uses the city’s noteworthy architecture and natural scenery to compose engaging images.  Using softened, harmonic colors, he presents his world via a classic, almost noir lens, showing us his perspective of the world through his painting.

Let’s start with the basics: Where are you from and what led you to Chicago?

I was born and raised in Detroit.  I came to the Chicago area in 1996 to go to Lake Forest College, a small private liberal arts school.  I was a studio art major with a four-year art scholarship there. When I graduated in 2000, I stayed here in Chicago. 

My father was an illustrator in New York during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. He moved back to Detroit with my mom in ’74. Growing up, I always watched him paint in his studio. 

What was it like being an artist at a liberal arts school?

I almost went to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I interviewed there and did all that.  I didn’t want to be one-dimensional.  I wanted to be well rounded.  And I don’t feel like I fit into the stereotype of an artist.  At least from what I saw at the Art Institute: people with piercings, tattoos, Mohawks, green hair… I’m kind of a preppy guy (gestures to his polo t-shirt), but I didn’t feel like I needed to look and act a certain way to be able to paint.  I feel like that’s kind of just a façade.  Your skill comes out if you have skill.  So I went to a liberal arts school where I could learn about everything else, too.  And I think that has helped me build my business.

Tell me about your art process.

I work from photos that I take.  Some people go out and do work on the street, but I take a long time producing my work. I can draw from images I took five or six years ago, eventually getting around to painting scenes from past trips.  I take many pictures when I’m out doing things or traveling. Then I get on the computer and I edit them to see which ones would make great paintings, whether or not they’d be good as watercolors or acrylic on canvas and what size would be great.

When you venture out to take these photos, do you go with the intention to take photos or do you always have a camera in your back pocket?

I used to always have a small digital camera with me.  Now, I have a bigger camera.  At least with photographing people, I can’t capture them anymore without their noticing me taking the picture, since I’ve got the bigger camera.  It used to be I could just take the picture and run away (smiles and laughs). I have so many images on file now; I don’t really need to go take pictures.  Although this past fall when it was super sunny and the leaves were changing, I would just walk around the neighborhood and take pictures. Sometimes I still get the urge to go do that. But there is a point where I don’t want to overwhelm myself with having too many images to paint and not enough time to do them all.

What does photorealism mean to you?

I always think people want something they can see and go ‘Wow, that looks just like a picture.’  My paintings, when you look from a distance, look very realistic, but when you are up close they look more abstract. You can see the looseness of the paint application and the paintbrush. You can see my hand in the work: dabs of paint and texture. That’s what I try to accomplish. Although, people who do those huge photorealistic paintings that look just like photographs, [I think] that’s pretty amazing and that takes a lot of skill to do, but at the same time I also think you might as well just get a photograph and blow it up as a poster. It’s almost the same thing.

So you’re saying you have a more painterly hand?

Yeah, I think you can see my hand in the work, and that is important as a painter.  Because if you are trying to make something look just like a photograph, then you might as well print a photograph at any size you want. If you overwork something to make it look so much like a photo, [the artist has] lost all of his painterly ambition.

There’s this quote I like:

"My theory is that a painting should never be finished any further than it needs to be to get the idea across, and that anything more than that is fussing." - Robert Bechle

Why did you stick with photorealism?

When I was learning, I was just experimenting as a high school and college student.  I poured paint and did a lot of abstract stuff, but I was still learning.  When I found my groove, that’s where I stayed. 

My dad, who did very realistic illustrations, was a fantastic illustrator and painter and drawer.  When he got older he started doing abstracts, pouring paint – like that big abstract over there with the roses.  He did that in 1984 when he was probably seventy or something.  Then he would paint realistic things on top of them. He wasn’t doing that to sell because his whole life all he did was work for other people and what they wanted. But he just felt like he was going to do what he wanted for himself.  I might get to that point.  But right now I know what people want to buy.  I can hit that target usually.

How and when did you first start exhibiting?

I sold my first painting when I was about 15 for $800 – it was a realistic image of Venice in watercolor.  I was selling a lot in high school.  Then in college I started selling paintings for like a thousand to fifteen hundred [dollars]. After college I had gallery group shows. I got my own solo show in 2001 at a studio on Southport called Bell Studio.  It was very exciting.  I was selling paintings for like three or four grand, and he was taking fifty percent.  But I got a day job, too, out of college. I painted every day, but I had a 9-5 day job. Over a few years I worked for a mutual fund company, then painted full time for a year, then I did some contract work at a hedge fund until I left in 2005 or 2006. I have been painting full time ever since. I opened my own gallery almost three years ago.

 How does the business side of your gallery and sales influence your work?

There are images I could do and sell thousands of prints of, including the original for sure, but they would be too touristy… I used to do work that had social commentary with people in them.  But now, I do more architectural scenes of Chicago: the bridges, the river, and the El stops.  People like that stuff.  There are other artists that do similar work, but I have my own style.  And I have different price points for all my work.  My originals are in the thousands, the big, framed prints are 200 dollars, and I have small prints for 20 dollars.  When I was with another gallery, he told me that he never wanted me to do prints of my work because it cheapened the work that he was selling for six thousand dollars.  It was beneath him, beneath us. I was okay with that as long as he was selling four or five originals a month. But if I’m painting as my livelihood, I’ve got to make money and provide for my family.  Like any other job you have to diversify.  You can’t just have one thing and live and die by that. There might be people that love my work that can’t afford to spend four or five thousand dollars.  So why can’t they spend 20 dollars on a small print for their bathroom or something? I mean the Art Institute sells prints of Picasso’s work at the gift shop, right? That doesn’t mean the original is worth anything less. That’s kind of the avenue I took when I opened my own shop. 

Do you have any work that you make just for you that’s not for sale?

There is one painting I will never sell that is in our bedroom.  And it’s the location in New York where I proposed to my wife.  When I proposed, I told her we would never sell that painting.  Everything else is pretty much for sale.  Hopefully, I’ll get to the point where I don’t have to make a living.  I will [have] produce[d] enough work and can live off of other work I have done over the years.  I can just do stuff that I can keep at the house for myself.  There are some that I would love to not sell, but if someone wants to buy it, they can buy it.