Born of the late ‘60s, photorealism is a strange beast, even by the standards of that era’s diverse and often discomfiting new art movements. Based on the meticulous transcription of photographs, typically taken by the artist and recording ordinary urban scenes, a group of New York and California painters developed an approach that presents itself as both radical and reactionary.
The style borrows its characteristic techniques from the world of commercial art: the tracing of projected images, airbrushing, and luridly synthetic colors. Those of us accustomed to the aesthetics of more traditional painting are apt to hesitate, if not recoil. Likewise, the matter-of-fact emphasis on the most banal aspects of contemporary American culture (readily familiar, despite the distinct period look of the early work) diverges uncomfortably from both the metaphor and sentiment of mainstream realism and the ironic social commentary of pop art, photorealism’s most obvious predecessor. It’s easy to write off the movement as kitsch: suitable perhaps for calendar art but hardly the museum.
And yet, careful inspection of these works reveals a complexity that coexists uneasily with what can fairly be called their surface emptiness. Studying these paintings, one is made freshly aware of the way pictures are constructed: particularly of what the British philosopher of art Richard Wollheim called “twofoldness”: the tension between the painting as a marked and colored surface and the world of three-dimensional objects and spaces that these convey.
Right now, Ithacans have the rare opportunity to see two local exhibits highlighting the movement’s evolution. The Johnson Museum at Cornell, which has a substantial photorealist collection of its own, is showing “Reality Check: Photorealist watercolors from the Meisel Collection,” a show of works on paper. Downtown, in what the artist is calling “The Studio,” veteran local painter Mariann Loveland is showing a mini-retrospective of her oil and acrylic canvases reaching back to the 70s.
Assembled by Johnson curator Nancy Green, “Reality Check” surveys watercolors and drawings from the collection of gallerist Louis Meisel, the original movement’s key impresario. Featuring core members of the early group as well as scattering of younger and lesser-known figures, the exhibit offers the viewer a straightforward and fairly comprehensive sense of what has become the photorealist tradition.
One core photorealist, John Baeder, is best known for his iconic images of diners. He presents these in more-or-less traditional compositions, which forego the ad hoc cropping and oblique angles of many of his peers. “Bendix Diner” (1989), a subtly colored watercolor, portrays a metal Deco box eatery abandoned amidst an empty suburban parking lot and sweet twilight tones.
Audrey Flack, who has focused on sculpture since the ‘80s, remains best known for her early, unabashedly kitschy still-life paintings. Unlike most of her peers in this exhibition, she developed a distinctly personal iconography that presented common consumer items as symbols of devotion and identity. (It is also difficult not to notice her presence as a woman in an overwhelmingly male dominated art movement.)
Done in acrylic on board, “Hers” (1977) is characteristic of her early style. Mostly indistinct, a pile of wrapped candies fills the aqueous space of the picture. Coming into relative focus are a foil wrapped chocolate kiss and a crimson covered toffee.
Part of its radically anti-humanist approach, photorealism has frequently sought to repress the human figure along with the emotional and social meanings that inevitably cling to it. Oddly vacant city scenes have become a cliché. Still, it is difficult for any ostensibly realist movement to avoid people entirely.
Chuck Close has made a career out of photo-based renderings of faces: his own and those of his friends. His relationship to the core movement is an oblique one. While is earliest mature paintings were monochrome and involved a detailed “realism,” he later moved towards an approach that highlighted his use–present from the beginning–of the grid while playing up a tension between painterly mark-making and the photographic model. Two drawings here, the ink and graphite “Robert” (1976) and the pastel and graphite “Susan” (1977), highlight his transitional period.
Although he professes an ambivalent relationship to the movement, Israeli painter Yigal Ozeri has emerged as one of the photorealism’s leading contemporary practitioners. Centering on sensual depictions of young women, his oils on canvas and paper also investigate, with evocative abstraction, the effects of glare and focal blur.
“Washington Street, San Francisco” (2011), a graphite drawing by Bertrand Meniel, combines the expected precision with uncharacteristic tonal and textural warmth. Rendered with classicizing perspective, the Chinatown street scene incorporates a picturesque jumble of old buildings with the spire-like Transamerica Pyramid in the background providing a futuristic foil, with detailed Chinese markings.
Loveland’s exhibit occupies a lovely, vintage space on the corner of Cayuga and Green Streets with large windows providing ample natural light and a view of Ithaca’s own lively sidewalk life. (The property, which previously housed Sunny Days, is currently seeking a long-term tenant.) The artist and her husband Bill have put together an elaborate presentation with colored walls, Salon-style hanging, and even a separate mini-gallery in the back.
The artist earned her MFA at Cornell in the early ‘60s and has since taught there, among many other places, in a lengthy and peripatetic career that brought her into the orbit of Meisel and early New York City photorealism.
And yet photorealism is but one source for Loveland’s eclectic, generous approach. Her photo-based yet painterly style and magical realist themes tie her oil and acrylic canvases to the work of Flack as well as precedents as diverse as the Surrealist Rene Magritte, the modern classicist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, late Medieval art (which she quotes here directly), and even the proto-postmodern ranginess of Francis Picabia. As well, her work has affinity with that of her Cornell peer, local painter Gillian Pederson-Krag.
Loosely recalling the approaches of both Close and Ozeri, several of Loveland’s canvases here use the photograph as a vehicle for painterly renderings of microcosmic detail.
One of the most memorable of these, “Hidden Path” also echoes distantly Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s witty Renaissance epic “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Loveland’s oil is a mesmerizing, gently humorous treatment of the figure lost amidst the abundance of nature. Beneath a dense canopy of trees and shrubbery, atop an angular outcropping and beside a pale turquoise stream, stands a bearded muscular man, bearing black wings and gesturing forward with one arm. The man–the artist’s partner–appears tiny, calling into question any apparent sense of reality.
Other paintings, generally less compelling, draw more from academic, classical, and surrealist precedents. “Self Portrait with Bill” places the aged couple, nude save for some casual drapery, in the context of a classical pastiche. At least it has humor.
It is unusual and encouraging to find this sort of accidental sympathy between an exhibit at the Johnson and one from Ithaca’s independent art scene. In distinctly different ways, these two exhibitions demand a suspension of what a mainstream gallery going audience might regard as tasteful or “serious.” We should admire the technical accomplishment of all of these painters while questioning their ends and what is ultimately accomplished and offered. Still, there is much to be gained from these to shows and their fortuitous meeting. •