In Defense of Kitsch

Figurative painter Michael Pearce and the reemergence of skill-based art.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Michael Moore

Artist Michael Pearce in his studio on the CLU campus, Thousand Oaks.


or a man who teaches art, Michael Pearce didn’t have a lot of patience for art school when he was younger. Disillusioned as a student in his native England in the 1980s by what he saw as a preoccupation with abstract art, Pearce set out to become a life painter. But he had to do so largely on his own.

“The classes I was taking were more about making sculptures out of piles of shoes and how to make pieces of string into a net, and I didn’t care at all,” Pearce said. “When I went on to do a bachelor’s degree and I looked around the studios, that’s what they were doing. It had nothing to do with technique, nothing to do with skill.” Pearce felt that art was dead.

Over chicken curry and pints of ale, Pearce discussed the long road that led to a studio on the campus of California Lutheran University where he teaches in the atelier system—the classroom is the artist’s studio where he produces his paintings, and his teaching is an extension of that.

A professor of art and organizer of The Representational Art Conference (TRAC), a prolific painter and author of a book called “Art in the Age of Emergence,” Pearce wound through a few happy accidents before emigrating to the U.S., found his calling as an artist, and began teaching.

It was 1983 when Pearce attended art school. “I wanted to paint like Caravaggio. I looked at those great paintings, the old masters, and I loved that stuff. I was interested in light and figurative drawing,” Pearce said. Conversations with art school instructors proved fruitless, though. “They would say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to do figurative art. There’s no room for that.’ I got a bit lost, frankly.”

Being lost, however, had its upside, and Pearce found theater a welcome change. Not acting or directing, but behind the scenes, a whole world opened up to him by accident.

“I went to a news agent on a Tuesday—I never used to go to get a paper on Tuesday, but I walked by and picked up the Guardian’s education section, and I saw this ad for Dartington College,” Pearce said. “It’s closed now, unfortunately, but in those days it was this really interesting, experimental, mad school where they did just fascinating stuff based on the principles of Rudolf Steiner.” Steiner was a late 19th- and early 20th-century philosopher whose work impacted everything from literary criticism to art, architecture, and agriculture. “I learned so much about creativity there. It was fantastic, and it was all because I bought a paper on a Tuesday instead of my usual Thursday.”

Pearce took his Tuesday revelation and ended up doing set and lighting design and publicity: for first a dance school and then a theater. He loved the work, and the thread that weaves that formative period of his life to the present is more like a cable; something about using light to create moments and illuminate figures on the stage spoke to Pearce. “I really loved doing that. Lighting was so interesting, and it got me into understanding that. At the time, I wasn’t conscious of that, but I think it led me in the direction I went in painting.”

He studied technique and skill, earning a master of fine arts degree from USC and then a doctorate from Plymouth University, all while living here in the U.S., his adopted home country. Pearce is just about to turn 50 and came to this country on his birthday in 1990. Twenty-five years later, he’s in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “People gripe about the United States, and I think they’re completely wrong,” he said. “There’s more personal liberty here than anywhere in the world, and I quite like that.”

As the organizer of TRAC, Pearce said he believes representational art is coming back. His book is testament to the idea, and he is passionate about figurative painting. “Postmodern aesthetics has kind of run out of steam,” he said. “It was a very destructive philosophy, as was relativism, and, of course, nihilism. There’s nothing left in those. They’re not a great way of looking at the world.”

Emergence, by contrast, is a natural way of looking at the world, Pearce said. “Emergence has you looking upward and outward, not inward and downward. It’s about things being greater than the sum of their parts.” Pearce believes that the mind is an emergent quality that one must consider when looking at human culture.

“Culture is a combination of all those elements of things that people make,” he said. “It’s inverted Plato. In Plato, everything emanates from God. In emergence, there’s everything—and ideas come from that. I think these things that are in the universe are the mind of God, we’re part of the mind of God.” So painting representational and figurative art is, for Pearce, a true and natural exploration of human culture, and studying it tells us more about ourselves than piles of shoes and collections of string.

Now about two-thirds of the way through another book he’s writing on the subject of kitsch, Pearce’s artistic worldview is unironic and unapologetically optimistic. “I remember seeing Odd Nerdrum’s paintings at a museum in Long Beach in the 1990s. In those days there wasn’t much representational art around,” Pearce said. Nerdrum was one of the speakers at the first TRAC gathering in 2012. “It was mind boggling and extraordinary. Here was a guy painting in spectacular technique, reminiscent of the old masters, and he wasn’t all about despair. The people in his paintings were sort of wandering in this desperate landscape trying to find new answers. They were hopeful.”

Pearce said that Nerdrum’s paintings were revelatory because they were contemporary and sentimental. “Kitsch is sentimentality, and that is the human condition,” he said. “Love, beauty, and grace are the things that define us, and fine art has said no to all of that. It’s absurd. Kitsch is great. Of course there is tawdry cheap stuff, but then what could be more sentimental than ‘King Lear’ or a Dickens novel? It’s sentimental and necessary for art.”

But kitsch has many levels, and Shakespeare or Dickens are not the same as a picture of a puppy chasing a ball. And for Pearce, art is not only about evoking emotion. “It’s also about the sharing of an idea. It’s the only thing we make that is solely about sharing an idea—its only purpose is to serve the mind.”

His studio is currently awash in paintings he’s preparing for a show in September at Camarillo’s Studio Channel Islands. The paintings, in various states of readiness, all center on the theme of relationship. “It’s all about how we can’t really know each other,” said Pearce. “Falling in love is at least getting close. You fall in love by experiencing another person—and art is the same way.” If that’s true, Pearce said, then artists shouldn’t spend so much time on negativity and bringing other people down. “Why wouldn’t you make stuff that’s deliberately made to raise them up?”

In that vein, Pearce continues construct rather than deconstruct. “Love is the answer to nihilism,” he said. “You can’t deconstruct love.” That seems at the heart of his painting, teaching, and writing. As Pearce himself said, “I think art has a lot to do with love.”


Paintings by Michael Pearce

Tools of the trade. Pearce staples canvases to the wall and uses a level to help lay out a painting’s composition. The spring-topped can is a brush washer, the artistic equivalent of an archer’s arrow sharpener.

Pearce works on several canvases at once, stapling them in a row so he can move easily from painting to painting. Here, he continues fine-tuning Emerge.

Emerge, 2015 (unfinished), 36”x66”, oil on canvas.

Cloud Nine, a painting of Pearce’s softly veiled daughter.

Half a Kiss, a work in progress. Another layer color will lighten the face and soften its features.


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