Captured Moments and Richard Estes

I’ve been a slacker. Back in 2013, I vowed to improve my knowledge of art and art history because they are subjects I love. I wish I had studied them while in college. Unfortunately life and procrastination has caused my efforts to self-instruct to dwindle.

In October 2014, I decided to push myself harder in my independent artistic studies. This new fervor was ignited by an article on Richard Estes on Smithsonian magazine’s website. I had no idea who Richard Estes was but the photo of his painting was enough to convince me to visit an exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The photo of his painting seemed to be a photo of a photo, and I disbelieved that it was of a painting. Hence my decision to visit the exhibit was more for proof than to gain any sort of artistic instruction.

After showing up at the wrong museum, I finally found my way to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and slowly browsed other paintings before visiting Estes’ exhibit. All the while, my music blasted in my ears (something by Jamaican dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel, which is probably highly out-of-place for a museum excursion) and I slowly danced from one painting to another until I danced up to the entrance to Estes’ exhibit.

I actually read this time. I usually don’t read much at museums, which means I miss a lot of useful information. Usually, I dance from painting to painting (I always have music blasting in my ears while at a museum), lingering over the ones I admire while wondering what drove the artist to create the piece, how did the artist apply his medium, and how long did it take to complete, amongst other thoughts. But this time I paused my music. I was enraptured by Estes’ work. The reason being that even with his huge canvas of the Brooklyn Bridge in front of me, I still found it hard to tell that his piece is a painting rather than a blown-up photo.

Richard Estes is a photorealist painter. He was born in Kewanee, Ill., and studied fine arts at the Institute of Chicago. After graduating, he moved to New York, where he worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer at various magazines. At night, he would work on his paintings, which later became his full-time career.

I was in awe by Estes’ work and I spent quite a while staring at each piece. So yea, I was in the museum for a very long time. For almost every piece, I approached from afar, taking in the hyperrealism of it, before slowly moving in, trying to pinpoint the moment at which my eyes, or my mind, stop playing tricks and I begin to view the piece as a painting. Up close, it’s easy to think of Estes’ pieces as a painting because the paint’s texture is sometimes obvious. But from afar, it’s hard to convince your eyes and mind that you’re not staring at a photo.

Because of how hyper realistic his paintings are, I see them as captured moments. Actually, Estes’ method is to work from a photograph so in essence the paintings are captured moments. Looking at them, it seems that Estes simply paused life, separated that moment, and threw it on a canvas. Sometimes he can be playful, like with his painting of a store during Valentine’s Day (“Checkout,” completed in 2012). At first you might think that you are simply looking through the display window of the store. Then you realize that what you are seeing is various reflections of the interior. The more you stare at the painting, the more you realize that you’re looking at multiple reflections of the same subjects repeated various times within the painting. It’s a bit mind-boggling but I love the piece.

"L Train" (2009) by Richard Estes
“L Train” (2009) by Richard Estes

From what I learned at the exhibit, Estes usually goes out to photograph on Sunday mornings. He takes many shots and later alters the images (splice, crop, and heighten buildings, etc.) to create breathtaking panoramas, such as his 2007 painting, “Antartica.” “Antartica” gives you a wide sweep of the water so you can see the ripples the boat creates, which spread out as far as the eye can see. The painting places the viewer in the boat, looking out at the glaciers rising from the dark sea. The mass of clouds rolling across the sky congregate in a corner as if to warn of an impending snow storm. I think it’s a magnificent piece. I like that Estes tries to place the viewer in the painting….I don’t know if that was his intention but the perspective we are given makes me believe that I, too, am part of the painting.

Of all his paintings, I think my favorite is Estes’ “Brooklyn Bridge,” which was completed in 1991 (see featured image above). It’s a huge piece. It’s possible that I like this one the most because it’s the first painting I saw in the exhibit, and its placement in the Smithsonian American Art Museum renders you helpless to do anything but stop and stare at it for a while. Also, I love lines. I really do. So it’s a no-brainer that I would love this painting.

The painting is of a section of the bridge and as soon as I saw it, I couldn’t help following the lines of the suspensions and steel supports into the distance. There’s a man in a red blazer about halfway along the bridge. He’s just chilling, watching people walk by. Apart from the lines, he captures my attention the most. He has a bald spot and is looking away from us viewers but I can’t help staring at him when I look at the painting. I don’t know why that is; probably because of the red blazer. Again, I like the perspective Estes uses. While staring, I felt as if I could step into the painting to walk up the suspension—like on a tightrope—with the man in the red blazer nonchalantly watching me.

Estes is a wonderful artist. His subject matters vary but my favorite pieces are those of structures, such as buildings and bridges—“Paris Street Scene” (1972) and “Jone’s Diner” (1979),—or those with multiple reflections, which makes me marvel at their complexity—“L Train” (2009) and “Columbus Circle at Night” (2010). Some of his pieces have human subjects, such as “Portrait of I.M. Pei” (1996), which is a marvelous painting of the renown Chinese-American architect, (lots of lines!); and there are many nature pieces as well, such as “Sea of Mamara” (1998) and “Near Hunter’s Beach, Acadia National Park” (2008). He is highly detailed and his pieces seem smooth and seamless, which gives the impression that brushes weren’t involved in their creation.

I highly suggest that you visit the exhibit if you are in Washington, D.C., or its surrounding areas. The Richard Estes exhibit will be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 8. Simply looking at photos of his work will not suffice. They might leave you in disbelief that what you’re looking at is a painting. I suggest viewing Estes’ work in person and experiencing his paintings up close.


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