Real to Real

Francesco De Panis knows how to do the dew in "Landscape: Hills"

When art is in trouble, realism comes to the rescue.

-- Stendhal

Realism rushed to the rescue like the cavalry in an old western when, in the late 1960s and early '70s, a new development in American painting that came to be called photorealism offered alternatives to such extreme styles as surrealism, abstract expressionism, and pop art. "Truth in Beauty, Beauty in Truth: Contemporary American Realism From the Seavest Collection," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, takes an almost reverential attitude to this rescue, as if it saved us from the excesses of abstraction once and for all.

The 42 pieces in the somewhat rambling show are taken from a vast private collection of more than 600 works, assembled over the past couple of decades by Richard D. Segal, a collector with eclectic tastes and apparently an inexhaustible budget for buying art. Included are still lifes, portraits, and landscapes urban and rural, rendered in such standard media as oil, acrylic, watercolor, and graphite; conspicuously missing here are the more extreme varieties of art currently fashionable, such as installations.

Some pieces adhere to the concept of photorealism, which is also sometimes known as hyperrealism or superrealism, with near-fanatical attention to detail. Relish, a 44-by-64.5-inch oil on linen painted in 1994 by Ralph Goings, takes the traditional still life and recasts it with the trappings of fast-food pop culture. The larger-than-life, carefully balanced composition consists of a glass jar of relish flanked by diner-style salt- and peppershakers, a glass coffee mug containing packets of such brand-name sweeteners as Equal and Sweet 'N Low, a ketchup bottle, and a metal dispenser stocked with paper napkins.

It's a delightfully tongue-in-cheek painting, and part of the joke is that the artist has gone to such painstaking lengths to capture these mundane items. Like so many of the early photorealists, Goings is mesmerized by the gleaming surfaces strewn through contemporary life -- he can't resist the way light plays on the glass and metal items in his image, and he goes about re-creating them in oil with such accuracy that the painting could easily be mistaken for a photographic enlargement.

Such trompe l'oeil trickery is not at all unusual in contemporary American realism, although some artists tweak it in various ways. The exhibition includes a large oil on canvas called Dog Days (1993) by Janet Fish, which was also part of the small, excellent one-woman show Fish had last year at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Like Goings, Fish pays meticulous attention to the reflections of light on the big pitcher of lemonade, dish of lemons, set of glasses, flower vase, and plate of watermelon that take up most of her image. The four dogs on the fringes of the painting, by contrast, seem slightly out of focus. Even though they're referred to in the title, they seem almost an afterthought in this celebration of solid, inanimate objects.

Objects and their appearances are key to much photorealism, which is why such classic ingredients of still life as flowers and fruit are popular with many of its practitioners. In the stunningly realistic White Mums (1990), a 24-by-28-inch canvas painted with an oil emulsion applied over tempera, Richard Thomas Davis goes for crispness and clarity, presenting us with a simple white ceramic pitcher filled with dozens of blossoms. Mary Snowden goes for an opposite effect with By Any Other Name (1988), a watercolor on paper that includes a dizzying profusion of roses -- in a vase, in a basket, on a table, on the wallpaper, painted on the surface of an ornamental tin.

For Still Life With Melon Rind (1990), a small oil on canvas mounted on a wooden panel, Richard Maury serves up a bowl of green grapes and a hunk of bread, along with other bowls, silverware, and a knife. In a departure from traditional still-life painting, however, he focuses not on the melon itself but on the soggy rind left behind after the melon has been eaten.

The landscapes in the show fall roughly into two categories: urban and rural. Some of these artists are clearly haunted by the eerie beauty of deserted cityscapes. Don Jacot's gouache Street Corner, Soho NY 91 #6753 (1991), the Richard Estes acrylic Union Square Looking Northeast (1993), and Robert Bechtle's watercolor Alameda, Sterling Avenue (1993) all find something oddly serene in empty, almost generic chunks of American cities. Jorge Eduardo gets much the same effect from the foreign setting of Venice, Palazzo Corner (1994), an oil on canvas.

The most ambitious (and most mysterious) urban landscape on display is Juan Gonzalez's New York Year 1986 (1986), a highly stylized 49-by-29-inch watercolor and gouache painting on paper, housed in a thick metal frame with a dull finish. A detailed, largely realistic portion of the city stretches dramatically into the distance in the middle of the picture, while a wreath of white flowers floats above the skyscrapers on what looks like a sheet of white paper or cloth that has been folded into squares and then unfolded again.

The image, like the ones mentioned above, is unpopulated, except for a framing device that consists of three shirtless, blue-jeaned young men. Two sit high above the city on pillars on either side of the painting, one of them looking away from us; the third stands on what could be a ledge at the bottom of the piece, again facing the city. Half a dozen birds in flight are suggested by some blurry, feathery shapes on both sides of the young man at the bottom.

Two other exceptional landscapes draw us out of the city and back into nature. Landscape: Hills in Mist, an undated 19-by-27.5-inch oil on board by Francesco De Panis, is a straightforward rendering of its subject matter. And yet the artist makes the mist almost tangible as it drifts down from the hills into a valley dotted with delicately detailed flora. Adjacent to this painting on a freestanding wall is the equally luxurious Red Chair in Autumn (1993) by Scott Prior, an 8.5-by-8-inch oil on panel that positions its old-fashioned metal lawn chair at the edge of a pond on which float a red toy ball and a blanket of fall foliage. The picture perfectly captures the look and feel of an autumn afternoon in the country.

With a couple of exceptions, the show is much less successful when it turns to portraiture. Self-portrait (threading a needle) (1999), a 27.25-by-17-inch oil on wood panel by Kent Bellows in which the artist looks directly but hesitantly at us, is unsettling but also fascinating in its attention to realistic detail. And with the 68-by-29-inch acrylic Lakme (1995), featuring a female nude draped with a twisted strand of green-and-white-striped fabric, Bernardo Torrens paints human flesh with an immediacy that's unnerving -- we can almost see the blood pulsing through the spidery veins and arteries visible just beneath the surface of her creamy skin.

Nearby, however, is a wall of a dozen or so portraits of women, painted or drawn with varying degrees of realism. Most of them don't have much of an impact individually, certainly nothing to match the imposing Lakme, and the way they've been bunched together in a seemingly haphazard arrangement doesn't help.

A few pieces seem totally out of place in the context of this exhibition's stated theme. One, the large mixed-media construction Godmother Shrine (1990), by Gregory Gillespie, combines a lot of realistically painted items with some mythically charged (and sexually explicit) icons to create a sort of cryptic grotto that would be more at home in a show emphasizing surrealism.

There's no curator's statement posted to elaborate on the show's "Truth in Beauty, Beauty in Truth" moniker, leaving us to wonder if it's just meant as a catchy phrase or if it's intended as some sort of weighted allusion to a line (widely misinterpreted) from Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." At any rate the title of the first version of this show, previously on view at Duke University, seems both more fitting and more fun: "Get Real," an apt summation of this worthy, if not fully focused, exhibition.

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