November 2, 2011

Special Feature

A special thanks to Geoff of The Post for featuring the following article about Santiago!

Lily Pads and Love Bugs: Santiago Michalek’s winning strategy strikes a familiar chord

Here are about half my thoughts about an artist whose work was on exhibit at the Meyer Gallery in Park City in August.

Surely one of the most widely recognized and well loved artists today is Claude Monet, whose long career carried him from the invention of Impressionism, through that landmark movement’s brief decade dominating the art market, past Cubism and the first World War, and ended just as that other perennial favorite, Surrealism, appeared on the scene. Specialists can identify Monet’s early, atmospheric experiments, but surely everyone knows the gardens and lily ponds that constitute the majority of his works. And thanks to his enduring popularity, many know that those subjects were not ones he found in the parks or suburbs of Paris. Monet was one of the handful of artists whose early success enabled him to buy land and to build the ideal landscapes he wanted to paint. His lily pond, its familiar bridge, and the gardens surrounding them could always be enjoyed in themselves, but first they were meant to be painted. Santiago Michalek’s life and work interweave in a similar pattern, but in his case the connection came about less directly. There must be plenty of car buffs whose dream job would be to spend their days restoring old cars if only they could make a living at it, just as there is no end to the would-be artists who can’t find a way to make it support them. Yet after a decade of alternating serious painting with tracking down and restoring his favorite old cars, Michalek’s two dream jobs have merged in a way that appears as practical as Monet’s selling admission to the gardens he made popular in his paintings.

Like the novelist Cesar Aira, Santiago Michalek was born just outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. He started drawing as a child, no doubt building crucial foundation skills that he would sublimate for more than twenty years. Perhaps like most boys he drew cars, though it seems unlikely he would have chosen to draw the relatively unromantic, cheap-but-sturdy Volkswagens that, as universal as they seemed immortal, could be seen everywhere in every conceivable condition. Young, would-be artists everywhere are told to find some more practical line of work, and maybe it didn’t seem so unrealistic a dream to a South American boy . . . not just to become a driver or a mechanic, but to make a living restoring the older VWs that, with the passing years, seemed less unromantic. Michalek was well aware that the image of what had become his favorite car was changing. “A few years ago, it’s true,” he says when asked about the crumbling examples abandoned in fields to rust into oblivion. But now, he explains, those same wrecks can be restored and sold to well-heeled baby-boomers who still want to own and drive the cars they pined for decades ago.

Michalek set up a business where his manual skills and high standards pay off; the cars he rebuilds aren’t just junk that can be driven, but are as close to showroom condition as possible. But his successful VW restoration shop on the Wasatch Front doesn’t exhaust all his energy or his ambition, and so a few years ago he began to formally study the skills he learned from his grandfather long ago. Although he retains a strong interest in the human physiognomy, both portraits and figures, it’s clear that much of his painting time is spent sketching the cars he works on. Sometimes he paints them as found, in barns or cluttered garages, sagging and listing in fields or junkyards, or parked and collecting dust under trees. A few can be seen in medias res, partly dismantled under the care of a fellow mechanic. Sometimes a car seen as found appears in another image fully reborn, a shiny source of pride. Throughout, it quickly becomes apparent that the artist knows his subject the way a scientific illustrator knows the parts of a plant or animal. As meticulously as he captures the mood and yes, romance, of old forms of transportation, Michalek paints his subjects so precisely his images could be used to illustrate manuals on their care and reconstruction.

At this relatively early stage in his career as a painter, the influence of San Francisco’s Bridge Academy, where he studied with Sean Diediker and Justin Taylor, is evident. There is a competent, illustrator quality to his painting that might be thought unusual in someone who began to exhibit only recently. But of course he’s been drawing, and painting, and working with his hands all his life. The range of conditions and circumstances in which old cars are found find their echo in the moods of his brush. The range of auto body paint, from shiny to rusted through, the worn out interiors, and the countless textures of sheds, open fields, garages, and wherever cars go to die (and live again), are only part of the story. It’s fascinating to go to his web site and see the same cars in both rough, small scale sketches and larger, formal presentations. Few artists of his caliber, even photographers or writers, can present a slice of life so vividly and with this authority, because few artists of his caliber have a life beyond art. Those who do often triumph as documentarians, but fail as story tellers. Santiago Michalek is a willing memoirist, someone whose paintings tell stories we can discern, intuit, and enjoy. And unless and until he and his peers get every old or abandoned Volkswagen back on the road, his stories and their limitless variety will only proliferate.

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