Michael Boles, To the Point, 2011. Aluminum, malachite,
and urethane. 40" x 72" x 1." Private collection.
It may be startling to discover that the terms real and realism do not mean the same things, and in fact, have quite different implications. Realism generally refers to the art historical definition, meaning to artistically render an accurate representation or copy of a preexisting object in space. Either painting or sculpture can imitate the natural world and create a recognizable likeness of a thing (realism); however, only sculpture can be real. Moreover, sculpture is always real. The term real defines a three-dimensional object in space, not a representation of it–which would be an illusion and not reality.
Sculpture extends beyond realism, moving from "a depiction of a thing as it is" to being what it actually is, i.e., "a sculpture." It is never an illusion, but always a real object existing in space. Likewise, I reject the term "abstract sculpture," as abstract denotes an idea separate from reality. My works make use of abstract imagery, signs, and symbols, but that does not negate their existence in real space. My sense is that the imagery is a part of a complete, real object. While the imagery may refer to external ideas through iconography, the unified work is self-referential. The whole sculpture and its imagery exist before the viewer in the real world. I do not desire my sculptures to be anything else.
I have defined an object existing in three dimensions as being real; therefore, sculpture is real, but painting is not. Only a painting's frame exists in reality; what is depicted, the illusion, is not real. Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd explored this idea in his 1965 essay "Specific Objects" (Donald Judd. "Specific Objects." In Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 824-828. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). Judd identifies the plane of a painting as a form in itself. The best thing painting can do is respond to its form, such as Frank Stella's stripe paintings. Judd recognizes the problem between a painting's surface illusions and its true external form (traditionally the rectangle). Judd writes, "Anything on a surface has space behind it." That means one has to understand even abstract painting as an illusion and in no way reality. For Judd, sculpture was the only option in art: "Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors–which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art."
Our associations with paint and metal are not the same. Paint implies surface and illusion. Metal, while also possessing a surface, implies much more because it shares the viewer's space. It does not depict reality (an illusion), but it is a real object. Differentiating sculpture and painting lies in one's ability to identify the characteristics of the art objects through the concepts of reality and illusion.
Relief sculpture is not new; it has existed in various materials for centuries. My reliefs are composed with artistic techniques from across time, but their purpose applies to the here and now and who I am as an artist in the twenty-first century. My reliefs reject the traditionally accepted notions of reality. They hold a space similar to a painting. They are displayed on a wall, but there is no illusion. They maintain linearity while pressing into the three-dimensional world. They are fundamentally what they are, existing within the viewer's space. They utilize both two- and three-dimensional elements, but are understood as real objects just like freestanding sculpture. Viewers may find the combination of linear and sculptural elements disconcerting, alluring, or both. Combining aspects of two and three dimensions may generate a change of perception by forcing us to reevaluate what we consider to be real. The relief sculptures I make directly engage with multiple dimensions and the discourse of reality.