Artist’s Notebook – Living in the Shadows of Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman, High School Art Teacher (1972)
Robert Bateman, High School Art Teacher (1972)

Artist’s Notebook – Living in the Shadow of Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman had been a teacher at my high school. By the time I got there, Bateman had moved on to fame and fortune.

There were always stories about early Bateman paintings being hidden away by teachers. I swear I saw a Bateman painting in one of the offices, but it was likely a copy. These sighting, however, gave support to the urban legend of hidden treasures.

During these years, I was really keen on pursing a life in the arts. Every year, I would travel to Toronto and see the end of year student art show at the Ontario College of Art (OCA); what would later become the OCAD (and still later, the OCAD University).

I faced two major challenges: I was a painter; I love realism.

At the time, realism and painting were considered to be dead, but artists in New York and California were proving these declarations to be false. There were the hyper-realists like Richard Estes and Chuck Close who had been doing amazing works for over ten years. I was also inspired by the work of Eric Fischl. I loved the notion of creating narrative filled paintings like the old European masters.

Unfortunately, there was bit of a counter-revolution after Bateman left. Why do painting when photography could do a much better job?

It also didn’t help that one of leaders in the Hamilton arts community was someone devoted to a more abstract-conceptual approach. He was also my art teacher.

When I looked beyond high school, things weren’t much better. Many of the Toronto galleries that supported emerging artists were still dominated by conceptualism.

The OCA was a bit better, but it was still tilted towards conceptual art. I was also concern about not having a degree at the end of my studies if I went to the OCA (they didn’t start granting degrees until 1996).

So, I decided not to go to art school.

After finished my academic studies, I returned to art, but the local scene was still focused on conceptualism, including the artist run centres. In those days, there weren’t many galleries in Hamilton, so you had to look to Toronto.

For a realist, this posed a serious challenge. On the one hand, the artist centres should be the place where you could get exposure, but my work was considered too retro to be seriously considered. On the other hand, galleries that were open to realism demand a level of craftsmanship that required years of practice.

I remember reading the criticisms of Eric Fischl work in the mid-1980s when critics would attack his painting skills. By the 1990s, Fischl would respond to this criticism by going to Italy to work on his skills and re-inventing his approach to art.

Fischl was lucky that his psycho-tense paintings found patrons and popular support that allow him to survive the criticism of art critics.

So, living in the shadow of Robert Bateman was challenging, but I am still painting.

Published by Chris Erskine

Inspired by architecture and landscapes, my art explores our relationship to place, memory and identity. As a mid career artist, my art practice includes: painting, murals, short films, and sound art.

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