It’s Time to Retire the Standard Model

I am tired of “babe” paintings, which are with us in great numbers. How do I describe what I am referring to? You know them when you see them: regular, symmetrical features, perfectly smooth, unblemished skin, long, silky hair and a solemn or blank expression (tattoos and clothing are optional). These models embody the current norm for beauty: the “standard model.” Largely created by the fashion and merchandise industries with the support of the media the models are symbols of desire used to sell products.

Such is our current mainstream culture, but for painting standard models are dull, repetitive and derivative. Lifted from, or perhaps unconsciously reflecting fashion media they appear too often in representative painting. The painters do a lot of things to make their images appear profound by setting up mysterious, symbolic or enigmatic situations, costumes, backgrounds, etc., but you can see little difference from fashion spreads.

It’s not just a guy thing, there are many women painters who also paint the standard model I think it’s great for selling clothes, jewelry, makeup and pretty much everything else, but what does it have to do with the concerns of Painting? Why take cues from an industry that is trying to sell products? The people who design and develop these advertisements promoting the glamor culture know exactly what they are doing. They use beautiful people precisely so that the product is not upstaged. As you watch the runway or turn the pages in a magazine, etc. the uniformity of the models blur and what you have left is the product and its associations with glamor.

Putting these techniques of advertising to work in a painting yields nothing except maybe a demonstration of a certain kind of skill. In standard model paintings any content is zeroed out disappearing into the viewer’s media saturated memory.

I was always pleased to have a good looking model when I was in the classroom. However, when making a work of Art a painter must consider the milieu in which the work exists. The amoeba-like media is obsessed with a look that falls into relatively narrow parameters and has generated images by the millions. They have annihilated the territory for painters by supersaturation and we ought to be wary of mimicking these images unless we’re making a specific point.

It was possible to pursue fashion-driven painting before the 20th Century, but no longer. Even in the fashion-mad Paris of the later 19th Century the meaningful work was in the service of radical painting that reflected a newly emerging way of life. It was new and original, not a reflection of cultural memes. I am thinking of the difference between Tissot and Monet, the former a fashionable society painter, the latter a founder of a new way of painting (really a new way of seeing).

This is not a plea to paint “real” people, but rather a call to rethink our use of subject. Why do we paint our fellow beings? What is our intention? What do we want to convey? It is always a good idea to use your obsessions to fuel your work, but a painter needs to drill deeply into the matter, not offer a mere image.

Since there are no more “movements”, the whole issue of painting figures and portraits needs to be built by each individual artist from scratch. I believe that the figure is an eternal subject that can be taken up by the skilled and unskilled alike. Right now, it seems that the unskilled have the edge and that may be because the skilled painters are trapped like Narcissus contemplating their talent.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Retire the Standard Model

  1. Thank you for saying this. I wholeheartedly agree. Some of the figures which captivate me as an artist and a viewer are those that portray age, question gender, and generally step outside the contemporary pop-culture standards of beauty. Very well-stated!

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