I last wrote of a long departed painter to remember. Today I turn my attention to a painter, very alive and well, to get to know better. Carl Grauer, American portraitist at large, is proof that excellent art, art full of searching ideas and based in the bedrock of dexterous technique, can trace its roots to any place. Grauer was born in rural, really rural, Wilson, Kansas (population 700). There he grew in a world of stretching fields and vast imagination, far from the buzzing cultural nests of capital cities near the coasts. But his early life was not at all insular, for his mother, a schoolteacher, was careful to expose her son to all the intellectual and inspirational richness of the wider world.
Grauer’s natural aptitudes for art and science became evident were further nurtured by Betty Kepka-Belton, an encouraging elementary and secondary school teacher who remains a dear friend of the artist. She guided him towards the field of medical illustration, a practice especially demanding of the mind and the eye, and introduced him to a master of anatomical drawings of moths at the University of Michigan, where Grauer eventually completed his MFA in medical illustration. His undergraduate days were spent somewhat differently, however, as a pre-med student at the University of Kansas. Upon entering the institutional structures that keep hospitals functioning, Grauer decided a career in such a system was not quite suited to him, and his artistic inclinations usurped his passions, as artistic inclinations have often done to other artists of note over the centuries.
Grauer now paints professionally full-time. I inquired why portraiture has taken such precedence in his work and smiled upon hearing his guileless, enthusiastic response— “Because people, faces!”
As an image maker, he is interested in more than mere likeness. He seeks penetrating glimpses into the obscure depths of true personality, not persona; he also aims to leave his own imprint on the sitter’s depiction. For Grauer, his art featuring others is a means of extending himself. The more faces he can interpret onto canvas or board, the more he reveals about his own nature and becomes layered into the here and now that makes up this odd age we live in.
Grauer also hopes to help his sitters discover something lasting, perhaps ever-changing, about the inner workings of themselves. He keenly understands that the picture which results from a portrait session will continue to influence the sitter’s self-referential identity long after its varnish has dried. (If you’ve ever been painted, it’s clear how unavoidable it is to sneak questioning glances at yourself, to shyly wonder what you seem to be outwardly while still uncertain of what truly lies within.) In this “Snapchat Society”, as Grauer quite accurately calls it, everything is fleeting; attention spans, communications, attitudes, celebrity, and as always, life itself. Even our colossal digital archives may one day become defunct. Grauer demands staying power, to create something which stirs up transformative thinking, but will last. And as the walls of nearly every museum and stately home in the world can attest, portraiture endures.
Grauer’s paintings are direct. The eye can’t help but be drawn to the frankness on the faces before it, and the brain may think twice about whether it is processing flesh and bone or just oil pigment. This attention-commanding palpability in Grauer’s art is informed by his great interest in the frontiers of representational and narrative art, which he justly believes still require much probing and expansion. Telling stories and attempting to show things as they appear are some of the most ancient aspirations of artistic practice. Grauer desires to develop upon and shuffle around those old ideas, to branch off into a creative process which allows room for both illusionism and concept. He’s actively documenting the present day, as the grand lineage of painters preceding him often did, but he’s also encouraging the propagation of abstract thoughts within realistic images.
Grauer’s emphasis on an elastic, intense reality is partially a response to the state of the fine arts today. He is not alone in lamenting the quick push towards the purely conceptual which blossoming artists often experience while in school; becoming somewhat lost are the basic practical tenets of art— form, space, colour, line, shape and texture — the very raw elements of competent technique. Yet Grauer recognises with hope, and identifies as part of, a re-awakening movement towards hands-on, apprenticeship-style learning, new yearnings for the classical atelier today and even the emergence of a new “representational school” which is simultaneously re-instating and challenging traditional conceptions of art.
It was during a three year-long sojourn in London that Grauer was able to mediate upon questions of academic technique and to refine his craft. While keeping a studio in the city’s eastern sphere and teaching classes at Chelsea Fine Arts, Grauer was privileged, but also pushed himself, to create all. the. time. By attending colloquiums and weekly life drawing courses, rapidly painting whomever would sit still during two-hour portrait sessions and haunting the halls of museums that were his churches, Grauer logged all the necessary work to hone his own style, a fingerprint, he laughs, that consists largely of making the same mistakes again and again. His diligence paid off, not only in terms of personal growth, but also in prestige, as his detailed piece A PhD Candidate was selected for exposition at this year’s Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ salon.
Today Grauer is living and working in Beacon, New York, soaking up all the inspirational natural beauty on display north of the Big Apple. Returning to the homeland after an extended stint of expatriation is a daunting change of pace for anyone, and hence Grauer feels grateful to be centered in a supportive, prospering art community in the Hudson Valley, where he continues to learn at workshops and tackles new commissions and series of works.
One such series, Recollections, will be shown publicly for the first time at Denver, Colorado’s Point Gallery on June 3. Upon receiving an invitation from the gallery to revisit a vein of work he had set aside for some time, Grauer threw himself back into painting altered memories of the American Dream. Sourced from vintage slides unearthed from family albums, friends’ attics and flea markets, Grauer’s images are not precise copies, but reinterpretations, of sentimental mid-century moments which have been fading since their capture decades ago. His scenes of gawky summertime smiles before Mount Rushmore, chance encounters at Disney World, spiffed up relatives mingling outside family events and groupings of children squinting into the beachside sunlight evoke high spirits and twinges of heartache. Here the artist explores the documentation of time from affectionate, candid perspectives, the funny way memory warps true occurrences, the permanence of the family unit which eventually dies away. In painting these compositions, Grauer also exorcised spectres of his own identity as an American while readjusting to life in a native land that had become strikingly foreign. By incorporating expressions of his own dealings with reverse culture shock, and placing among the trusting visages of Americans living gaily during the Atomic Age, Grauer lays upon the anecdotal works another coat of invisible character and restless questioning, reiterating his subtlety and sensibility as a contemplative artist and technician.
Images courtesy of the artist.