Why I have content in my paintings even when (most) art these days doesn’t

You visited one of the big art fairs. You saw thousands of artworks by hundreds of artists. But two days later, you can’t seem to remember any of them in detail. You are not alone!

There were plenty of pretty pieces, often non-offensive ones exhibited. You toured through crowded mazes filled with myriad paintings, sculptures, and installations along with scores of other collectors, trying to find a work with which you had an emotional connection.

There was nothing wrong with what was on display. It was just so vanilla, so dull. You like vanilla, don’t get me wrong. You just don’t want to decorate your home in vanilla. You’re much more interesting than that!

Here is a recent work that is intended to make viewers think about who is watching whom:

In Kevin Grass's "Primates" acrylic on panel painting, it is not certain who is watching who: the silverback gorilla or the zoo visitors.

Primates, acrylic on panel painting by Kevin Grass, 40" x 30," 2017.

When you collect art, you want it to make a statement. You want to be able to look at it again and again and see new things in the carefully-crafted details. You want the art you acquire to be an extension of your own multi-faceted personality. You care about people, about different causes, about the direction this society is headed. You want your art to reflect that.The visitors to your home should see the artwork you collect as conversation starters. Not just: “How much did you pay for that work?” Besides being crass and gauche, you have better taste in friends than to encourage people like that to visit your home more than once.

Maybe you pride yourself on discovering relatively new talent – collecting living artists whose work will appreciate in value because it’s just that good, but whose name is not yet a household word in the art world. Even though it should be, because the technique is on par with that of the works hanging in fine art museums.

But ultimately, you want the artwork on your walls to say something to you. You want to look at it again and again because the message resonates with you. For that, the piece must have content, something that makes you feel strong emotions. Just admiring a work on your walls because you think it’s a worthwhile investment, or even because you think it’s crafted well is not enough in the long run: it needs to have substance to stand the test of time!

That is why my figure paintings all have a message. The primary purpose of my work is to make people think. These are not paintings that just hang on your wall – they demand attention and promote lively discussion.

For example, long before the television show Thirteen Reasons Why got the public to discuss suicide as an outcome of cyberbullying, my Final Post :( painting addressed the same issues. The central female figure, holding a blade to her wrist as her “friends” look on through the window panes in this work, is beautifully painted. Whether she will go through with self-harming is open to the viewer’s interpretation. That the piece is memorable was demonstrated to me when a visitor to Artexpo in New York, who had seen the piece two and a half years earlier in Miami, came up to me and told me that he had not been able to forget this work. He just wished he had the money to purchase it, because it created such a strong emotional impression on him! That is not vanilla art.

Realism artist Kevin Grass's "Final Post : (" painting is about the types of extremes like suicide that can be the result of cyberbullying.

Final Post : ( acrylic on panel painting by Kevin Grass, 30" x 45," 2015.

Not all my pieces are as graphic as the previous example. My paintings are about contemporary life. The fashions are reflective of our culture and the models are real people. My Intimacy painting shows two fully dressed teenagers entwined but preoccupied with their cell phones, rather than with each other. It is a simple, yet poignant sign of today’s times. 

Intimacy, Acylic on panel painting by Kevin Grass, 38" x 38," 2015.

The dramas enacted in my works concern universal issues interpreted in a somewhat dark, humorous manner. My newest work, Clown, addresses the idea of body image for girls and young women. In the background, a small girl holding balloons seems engrossed by the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition calendar. In the foreground, a young man, dressed as a jester, playfully tweaks one of the pink balloons in front of an attractive young woman’s chest. The whole image is so ridiculous, that it is funny. The notion that young girls feel early on that they need to conform to certain standards to be perceived as beautiful is less so.

Clown, Acrylic on panel painting by Kevin Grass, 36" x 24," 2017.

I want people to be able to relate to my images and I want future generations to see what it was like to live in turn-of-the-century America. When they look at my Black Friday painting, the idea that people would camp outside of a big box store to get a special deal on something like a TV set, the day after they are supposed to be especially thankful for their blessings, will strike them as ludicrous.

Black Friday, Acrylic on panel painting by Kevin Grass, 72' x 48," 2016.

The conceptual or narrative aspects of the images are just as important as their execution. I am a perfectionist and it is my goal to create exceptionally crafted work. There is no way to rush or fake the realism that I create in my work, and it often takes 200 to 400 hours to complete a piece. The technique is very important to me and cutting corners is not an option.

It would be easier to create artwork with no content. It would certainly be easier to create paintings that did not rely on the intricate mastery of the allegorical realism my work entails. But then my works would resemble those of hundreds, if not thousands, of other artists out there. Decorative? Yes. Competent? Probably. Vanilla? Definitely!

If you collect my paintings, you will receive works that are created in the traditional manner, beginning with studies and utilizing many layers of paint to produce rich, translucent colors – like traditional Flemish oil painting techniques, but completed entirely by hand with acrylic. I do not believe in using gimmicky techniques or shortcuts. I want the work to be highly resolved and there is only one way to get there: time.

But if you collect my paintings, you will receive something even more valuable than technical mastery. You will receive works that will enrich your emotional satisfaction and provide lively conversation pieces for your guests. You can illuminate the question of whether art tells future generations the truth about our society. There’s nothing vanilla about that!