It is perversely true in this age of instantly replicated images that it has become challenging for us to view realist painting, perhaps the most accessible of all visual art, as serious and meaningful work. Modern realists have too often been caught between the extremes of technical self-absorption and overt illustration. On one side lies a fascination with the denial of surface and process, where technique can become master to the art. On the other side, a need for narrative context dominates and it is too easy to dismiss the painting for the story. But if visual art is to move us, it must provide an opening, an invitation to relate the work to our own experience and make it our own. Neither the tricks of technique nor the literal narrative truly foster that connection.
In the end, it is the voice and vision of the artist, not simply his skills, that make an image art. It is, as Scott Prior has put it, “discovering the spiritual in the everyday” that gives the artist his power to speak to us of common experience. In these images of home and family, “where the battles are “… subtle and everyday — as between a pair of garden clippers and a weed,” Prior depicts a world that is intimate, simple and personal. These are secret spaces, where there is room for us, but only just. Here, objects and people stand in almost reverential silence, transfixed and transfigured by a golden light. There is a spiritual presence in these works, sensual and enveloping. Not easily grasped but impossible to ignore, it floats as a question in the almost palpable air.
Prior’s technique is effortless and transparent. The figures and scenes are aggressively ordinary. Yet, with a light and sympathetic sense of humor, he manages to invest these things and the relationships they imply with symbolic weight and an emotional charge. At times it is familial and heart-warming, at others frankly sexual or challenging. The impish little girl in the flood stirs laughter and warmth and something deeper too, as murky and entangling as the swamp in which she stands. There is a power in her hip-shot stance and in the enigmatic smile that draws us deeper into her world. Wood nymph, spirit, sprite or pixie, she is mythic and mystical presence here as much as she is the artist’s daughter on a warm spring day.
The master painters of the Flemish Renaissance, for whom this artist holds much admiration, enjoyed a common language of symbolism, with reference to shared belief and sacred teachings. Objects and settings stood for other things, allowing layers of meaning and hints of deeper truth. This commonality of language and culture is behind us. Still, the reflecting of eternal truth is the stuff of art and Prior has mined the tradition in this work. Focusing as they do on the familiar, Prior’s paintings sound a chord which resonates in us, alluring and disturbing at the same time. In a secular age, he uses two old, comfortable chairs, decaying in an autumnal twilight, to speak of companionship, and of time and its ravages, as surely as his predecessors evoked the holy with gilded halos and angelic apparitions. Scott Prior is a realist painter of prodigious talent and consummate skill. But what raises his work beyond the beauty of its presentation is this most romantic vision, a belief that love and laughter lie just beneath the surface of the mundane. With clarity and purpose, his voice speaks to us in these lucid compositions of what it is that makes us human. He is a conjurer, stirring magic from the ordinary.