How good is painting? Not individual painters, but the art of painting itself? Is it so good that we can take the techniques of figurative painting as it was practiced in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries and apply it successfully to our own circumstances? John Sanchez set out several years ago to answer this question, and his labors are culminating in a provable affirmative. Our circumstances, it needs to be said, do not permit a rehashing of artistic standards lifted wholesale from the year 1820. We're modern people with cameras and electric lights, and realist art that doesn't account for them, both as subjects and as influences on the history of image-making, doesn't fully pertain to us. Sanchez has identified a way of working at once painterly and photographic, employing the richness of glazed oils and the quirks of the camera. Lights blast into undifferentiated white masses, and shadows turn into black walls. Normally we would scold an artist for painting things in the way they turn out in a photo. But Sanchez has built a new sort of creature, combining the studied authority of photorealism and the drama of the Barbizon school. The paintings make one think alternately of Daubigny and Robert Bechtle.
Too, if painting is good, then the light that glints on the rain-washed asphalt of Biscayne Boulevard is as worthy of depiction as any light that fell on Inness's bucolic New Jersey. The thunderheads that menace Miami's landscape of overpasses and palms are not inferior to the ones that troubled the ships in Turner's seascapes. Not only is the red pickup truck lovely in the stadium lighting, but the artificial way that the camera records it in the surrounding darkness of the parking lot is beautiful as well. Indeed, these possibilities bear out. In Sanchez's work, sunshine of divine intensity obliterates the glass facade of a rest stop on the Florida Turnpike, as Americans, identifiable in their sneakered corpulence, pleasantly and heedlessly mill about in it. There is no irony here. The subject's banality and its beauty transform into a single phenomenon when seen in the right way.
The great novelist Jean Giono once wrote, "The present disgusts me, even to describe." I thought of Giono when I saw these paintings, which I studied in the presence of the artist as he prepared to have them set into frames that harkened to a previous century. (It was a smart choice, echoing the artist's dual pursuit - perfect contemporaniety, and consummate execution as measured by the tradition of oil painting.) If only Giono had seen what Sanchez sees in the present. He might have appreciated what the painter has found: a persistent attractiveness that belongs equally to every time.