Unreal Realism

Two painters on display at MoCA squeeze, smear, or fiddle with images to make them their own

Artschwager turned to art in 1947 after military service in Europe during and after World War II, and he has experimented with a variety of media during the course of his long career, including works that combine painting with sculpture. A great deal of his work is based on photographs, especially newspaper photos, that he reinterprets in paint.

Polish Rider I (1970-71) and Polish Rider III (1971), for instance, are elegant dining-room and living-room scenes, respectively, that echo photographs from interior design magazines. (The cryptic titles allude to a Rembrandt painting of a man on horseback.) The panels in Three Women (1963) play off newspaper photos of models on the runway at a fashion show.

Artschwager's great innovation is the substitution of something called Celotex for canvas. In the show's catalog, Clearwater describes it as "a rigid compound board formed from sugarcane fiber." It provides a coarse-textured working surface that takes on a stippled look when Artschwager applies pigment, typically acrylic, to it, and it seems especially suited to the range of grays the artist likes to work with, resulting in imagery that's rough and slightly blurred, like an enlarged newspaper photograph.

Essenhigh sometimes elongates limbs, sending them spiraling off into space.
Essenhigh sometimes elongates limbs, sending them spiraling off into space.
Artschwager's prophetic Untitled (Fire) captured a turning point before it happened.
Artschwager's prophetic Untitled (Fire) captured a turning point before it happened.

That vaguely defined look contributes to the haunting Untitled (Fire), which portrays a skyscraper fire seen from street level. Artschwager painted it in 1988, but there's no way to look at it now without remembering that instant when the first jet crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It just goes to show that art can have ramifications that extend far beyond the circumstances of its creation. Unknowingly, Artschwager captured a turning point in the history of the world long before it actually took place.

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