When it came to choosing a career as an artist, “there was no other option,” L.A.-based painter Robert Russell, recently told Brooke Jaffe for “ARTnews Live,” our ongoing IGTV series featuring interviews with a range of creatives. “It was always something I did. I was always on the floor drawing and painting.” To aspiring artists, he advises, “Make sure you love what you do” and “just keep making your work.”
Russell is best known for his photorealist paintings, which address themes of memory, iconography, and mortality. His work often nods to art history and also reflects on the increasing importance that photography plays today. He cites Édouard Manet, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velázquez as continued sources of inspiration, as well as his mentor and friend artist Charles Gaines.
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For his latest series, Russell described an effort to “monumentalize” and “elevate these mundane objects”—in this case, teacups—through his painting practice. He first became interested in teacups as a subject after seeing how they and other objects are photographed in order to be sold on online platforms such as eBay and ahead of estate sales. For the artist, painting the teacups became his own form of ritual memorialization to their previous owners. Because the teacups are themselves fragile, he connected them with the concept of memento mori, which reflects on the fragile nature of life.
The teacups are enlarged onto canvases that measure 5 feet by 7 feet, which allows for viewers to feel “the painterliness really come through when you’re in the space with them,” Russell said. “You feel the brushwork. You can see my stroke, my hand in the work.” As they approach the photorealistic painting, the teacup “starts to kind of dissolve into just brushwork and paint.”
During his interview with Jaffe, the artist goes into detail his process, which involves culling a large array of images for a given project. When he refers to the photographs in order to make his paintings, he pays particular attention the hints of human presence that can be glimmered in them.