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The Many Masks of Modern Art

Robert Vickrey's paintings demonstrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Romantic Realism. Its strengths lie in the fact that his paintings are carefully observed and imaginatively conceived, sensitively composed, exquisitely drawn, and beautifully rendered. Its weaknesses lie in a vision of the world and of reality that is hermetic and somewhat antiseptic.

From original conception to the signing of his work, Vickrey knows precisely what he is doing, and why. I have yet to see a painting or drawing of his which isn't perfect in its own special way, which isn't flawless in drawing or technique.

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What's more, he's gentle and sympathetic as an artist and has a remarkable empathy for the very young, the lonely, and the elderly. He knows how to transform such things as the details of a nun's habit, or the shadows cast by bicycles, into patterns that are both fascinating in themselves and instrumental in defining mood or character.

Unlike most artists of this genre, Vickrey has evolved a unique, personal, and consistent style that is altogether his own, and as far from that of Andrew Wyeth, Paul Cadmus, or George Tooker as it is from that of Edward Hopper or Charles Burchfield. That he is an excellent stylist is something not generally understood by the hundreds - and possibly thousands - of artists who attempt this genre, producing, as a result, pastiches of other artists' works, or mechanical renderings of whatever lies before them.

My point is that Vickrey, for all his limitations, is an artist, that he doesn't blindly render what he sees, and that he isn't merely an illustrator. While he may deal very specifically with the appearances of things, and may produce nothing that is not drawn from the world around him, it would be a serious mistake to think he lacks creative imagination and artistic validity.

His paintings and drawings may appear ''realistic,'' but they are in fact highly personalized transformations of observation, emotion, experience, and desire into images and symbols of what he loves, is enchanted and intrigued by, thinks is important, and envisions as representative of a better world. His art may derive on one level from the way our world appears, but that is only the first step of his creative process and not its final one - any more than the process of fashioning steel ends with the mining of iron ore.

I wish this were better understood by those who use the word ''creativity'' as though it were synonymous with a free-wheeling imagination or an idiosyncratic temperament. These people deny the word to any artist whose work derives from a direct engagement and ''dialogue'' with the facts and appearances of the physical world rather than from an act of improvisation or geometric or free-form pictorial ''invention.''

It is time we realized that creativity is more truly an act of perception than of imagination. Man's greatest act of creativity lies in perceiving what is , and then finding an imaginatively direct way to communicate that truth to others; not in making something ''out of thin air,'' or concocting an amalgam of things never seen before.

We've come to worship imagination as though it were an end in itself - a wonderful goal whose realization would free us once and for all from the responsibilities of reality. We forget entirely that true imagination does not help us evade reality but to find it.

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Imagination is the unique ability to circumvent habit, dogma, prejudice, taboos, fears, by a leap of intuition that takes us soaringly and immediately into the presence of a truth. Having enabled us to perceive that truth, it then helps us fashion the best possible way to communicate the truth to others.

Just as we must remember that an inventor is one who discovers a new way to apply a principle and not someone who concocts something out of nothing, so must we remember that an artist is one who discovers and applies a ''new'' perceptual principle (or profoundly personalizes an existing one) and not someone who merely copies the appearance of things or fashions doodles out of circles and squares.

Genuine creativity is a responsible act performed not only for the edification and enjoyment of the creator, but also for the edification, enjoyment, and enhancement of mankind. And because that is so, we must focus our attention more upon what is transmitted through a work of art, than upon the manner, style, dialect, or accent in which it is transmitted.

But how, one may ask, does all this apply to Robert Vickrey? How does this sensitive, reasonably imaginative, and moderately talented painter, dealing with gently sentimental images of everyday places and events, rate the title of artist? What perceptual truth has he discovered? In what way has he come to grips with a ''new'' aspect of reality? Is he not, rather, a more gentle and ''sweet'' version of Andrew Wyeth? Is he not a more technically sophisticated and better focused version of the numerous contemporary painters who paint scenes from childhood, melancholy-looking old Victorian houses, nuns at play, or character studies of old men or old trees which appear on calendars, in magazines, and on the walls of homes from Maine to California?

To begin with, Vickrey has neither discovered a profound perceptual truth nor come to grips with an important new aspect of reality. His work neither dramatically alters nor redirects our perceptions or our experiences. But he is an artist nevertheless, albeit a minor one.

He has strongly personalized an existing perception of artistic truth: the notion that art stems from the portrayal of human feelings and attitudes. Vickrey takes life in all its forms - but most particularly the human - very seriously, and projects a great deal of that attitude into and through his art. As a result, his images and symbols convey a strong sense of the preciousness of life, as well as of its occasional vulnerability. He reminds us gently of mortality and leaves us feeling glad to be alive.

The qualities that set him apart from the other Romantic Realists are refinement of sensibility, delicacy of touch, an imaginative compositional sense , and a gentle, all-pervading vision of life and of art that causes him to empathize deeply with his subjects, and to make certain that every single aspect of his compositions functions as an important and integral part of the whole.

His art, in other words, is all of a piece, and doesn't share the unfortunate tendency of most Romantic Realist painting to exist as a pastiche of photographic exactitude, ''pretty'' or murky color, technical inconsistency.

Even so, his art falls short in depth and range because it is ultimately too neat and tidy. There is a great deal of compassion in his art, but little or no real challenge. We view his paintings, are intrigued and gently touched by them, muse upon them for a moment - and then move on, unchanged.

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