|Little, Carl. "Estes Finds His Film Biographer Right on the Island," Maine Times, November 25, 1998. Reprinted Courtesy Maine Times, as well as Carl Little.|
Richard Estes ranks among America's most acclaimed living artists. His complex canvases -- described as hyper-realist, super-realist, photo-realist or just plain realist, depending upon who's writing about them -- continue to be the talk of the art world, and he has been the subject of numerous books, catalogues and articles. As John Updike has written, Estes “feasts the eye to surfeit" with his miraculously real renderings of primarily urban scenes. The recently released Richard Estes: A Film Documentary serves as an excellent introduction to this remarkable painter, who divides his time between New York City and Northeast Harbor. The film's opening sequence underscores the illusion of so many of Estes's canvases: As a view of New York City is shown, the sound of sirens makes it seem like it is an actual street scene we are looking at -- or at least a very sharp color photograph of same. Fooled again.
The effect of Estes's seamless realism is redoubled as biographical details are revealed. Born in Kiwani, Ill., raised in nearby Sheffield, near the Mississippi, the artist might have, as he puts it, worked in a garage all his life had his family not moved to Evansville, outside Chicago. As he speaks of his past, he ties it to his current location. Kiwani resembled Ellsworth, he says; and the business his father owned was "like Haynes' garage,” a reference to a well-known repair shop in Northeast Harbor.
Interested in all the arts -- imagine a teenage midwesterner playing Wagner while his family grouses in the background -- Estes eventually settled on graphic work, training at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was, he says with some pride, the black sheep and freak of the family.
Estes answers most of the questions with pleasure and sometimes humor, but a few queries nettle him. Asked to describe his work, he curtly responds "Just look at it." In his opinion, an artist has failed if he has to explain his work. Later, expressing a distaste for labels and categories, he flatly states "I'm just a painter."
By contrast, questions about process and technique are answered in detail. Estes works from photographs -- like Degas, Cezanne and others, he explains -- making prints in his own darkroom. Photographs are more accurate than on-the-spot sketches, he says; and besides, it's a lot easier working in a studio than standing out in the wind with curious spectators interrupting you.
Estes traces his technique back to Jan van Eyck, although water- based acrylic serves as the underpainting for his oils. He uses "every weird brush" he can find, bemoaning that certain lettering brushes have been discontinued as graphic artists turn to computers.
My favorite section of the film deals with the ways in which Estes incorporates his name into the paintings. It's something of a game, like the Ninas that Hirschfeld hides in his famous New York Times caricatures -- an entertaining bonus.
The artist speaks glowingly of Maine, once an escape from summer in the city, but now his home half the year. He hopes the place won't change -- "turn into a Long Island" are his precise words. A few rather canned shots of Somes Sound come off weakly when juxtaposed with several glorious Maine island paintings, among the artist's most recent works.
Estes proves an animated and thoughtful interlocutor. I was reminded of Evan Charteris' impressions of John Singer Sargent's manner of conversing. "When he talked of matters relating to art, or when he was with intimates," Charteris wrote, "[Sargent] found words with comparative ease. Even then there was hesitation, as though he was at his easel determining the next stroke of his brush." We sense in Estes the same "anxious sincerity" Charteris found in Sargent.
While listening to the painter describe his life and work (we never see or hear the interviewer) the camera pans over many of his best-known works, panoramas of New York, Paris, Venice, Florence and Japan. Without captions or credits, this tour may prove confusing to those unfamiliar with the work. Throwing in an Edward Hopper painting and a Canaletto print without direct identification might prove baffling. And I confess to being somewhat disconcerted when a view of Barcelona turned up in a segment devoted to New York.
Yet these are minor quibbles in an altogether engaging portrait of the artist. And these problems can easily be remedied by consulting the literature on the artist most notably John Arthur's 1993 monograph, Richard Estes: Paintings & Prints.
Thom Willey is a young filmmaker with mostly commercial work to his credit. He has provided camera crew support on a number of movies, studio and made-for-TV projects, from "Courage Under Fire" to "Stephen King's Storm of the Century." He has also worked on commercials (Oscar Meyer, Maine Tourism '97) and TV programming ("Martha Stewart Living," "Unsolved Mysteries").
Willey packs a lot into 30 minutes and yet the pace seems leisurely, with Paul Woodfin's guitar tracks weaving in and out. This engaging portrait represents a promising debut in documentary filmmaking.
Richard Estes: A Film Documentary is available for $20 (tax and shipping included) from Thom Willey Films, P.O. Box 837, Southwest Harbor, 04679.
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