Shock of the Passé
Culturally speaking, "Shock of the Real: Photorealism Revisited" is so 15 minutes ago. It's a lavish look at photorealism, a movement that more or less came and went nearly half a century ago. Influential critic and historian Edward Lucie-Smith called it "a briefly fashionable movement" that "has lost nearly all of its critical and intellectual support."
Lucie-Smith goes on to observe that photorealism — paintings made from photos to almost look like photos — has never quite lost its cachet with collectors. That probably says something about the appeal of this show to an institution as infatuated with collectors as the Boca Museum is. Photorealism has also exerted an enduring allure on the public, as evidenced by the reaction to "Shock of the Real" when I visited. A few of the visitors I witnessed seemed positively pre-orgasmic, emitting little gasps and moans of pleasure as they moved from one photorealist stunner to another.
What merits such unbridled enthusiasm? Didn't the invention of photography finally free painters from their obligation to the slavish reproduction of reality? As it turns out, no, photography actually facilitated greater fidelity in the reproduction of reality. In one of the little reflexive ironies in the history of modern art, the agent of liberation also became the enslaver.
Perhaps a little meandering through history is in order. Many of the great movements of modern art, from surrealism and Dadaism and cubism on to abstract expressionism and beyond, have moved art away from reality. Photorealism took an opposite tack, reclaiming and refining realism to a previously unthought-of degree.
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This radical (or maybe reactionary) return to realism was made possible by the camera. Photography became both the subject matter and the style for photorealism, whose practitioners do things like project and enlarge the photographic images they work from and use big photographic grids that make more — and more detailed — re-creations of reality possible.
Such use of mechanical or semimechanical means of transferring material to canvas was one of the defining criteria of photorealism as later laid out by New York art dealer Louis Meisel, who is credited with coining the term photorealism in the late 1960s. The photorealist, Meisel declared, "uses the camera and photograph to gather information" and "must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic." In other words, photorealism is as much about technique as anything, and this virtuosity is on display in all its eye-popping glory in "Shock of the Real."
Of the roughly 18 artists generally considered to make up the first generation of photorealists, nearly all of them are amply represented in the show. There are as many as five works each in the case of Robert Cottingham, Richard Estes, and Ralph Goings. The rest of the exhibition includes works by nearly a dozen other artists from the second and third generations of photorealism. That adds up to roughly 70 pieces, making this an impressively ambitious survey of the movement.
But photorealism should be thought of as a movement in only the loosest sense of the word. Unlike, say, the surrealists, the practitioners of photorealism have never issued manifestos or drummed people out of their ranks for not adhering to a set of aesthetic rules. Rather, photorealists seem to have arrived at and embraced their common style independently.
That said, it is somewhat remarkable to note, as you move through "Shock of the Real," the consistently high quality. Perhaps because of the emphasis on technique, it seems that only virtuosos need apply to this club.
It has often been noted that subject matter is of only secondary interest to photorealists. I'm not so sure about that. To judge from the works on display here, most of these artists appear to have their personal obsessions, some of which overlap. Estes, for instance, is drawn to urban material, as seen in such meticulously detailed panoramas as Hotel Empire (1987) and Times Square at 3:53 p.m., Winter (1985), which mimic the effects of wide-angle photography. Davis Cone is enamored of old-fashioned movie houses, while John Baeder displays a fascination with diners. Ben Shonzeit's gimmick is to give us unnervingly intimate close-ups of things like a cut of meat. Other artists are preoccupied with shiny toys, gleaming automobiles and motorcycles, and contemporary still-life scenes.
Chuck Close, for another prominent example, works almost exclusively with the human face, although he achieves his how-did-he-do-that? effect through various means. For 1984's Emily, he builds up the portrait through accrual, applying countless fingerprints until the image emerges. Georgia, from the same year, uses dozens of subtly different shades of gray handmade paper to achieve the likeness of its subject. A decade later finds Close working with an even more sophisticated technique for Paul, a portrait of fellow artist Paul Cadmus made up of hundreds of tiny ovals, circles, and squares of pigment, each abstract in itself but adding up to an amazingly accurate portrayal.
The photorealists wow us, finally, with the sheer accumulation of detailed visual information they pack into their paintings. Given the shaky current state of our national economy, it's no wonder they haven't lost their ability to impress us with their visions of raw abundance. The photorealists give us the American Dream as so much stuff — a guilty pleasure, as this exhibition makes clear, that's hard to resist.
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