Photorealism at the VMFA (From May, 2013)


Photorealist gallery open at  theVMFA.


               There’s an interesting new gallery over at the VMFA. With a description tag bearing the simple title Realism.


            This room contains nine paintings and two sculptures which came on view March 17th.  Never seen before as an ensemble, these pieces have come out of storage from the museum’s permanent collection to inhabit their own space in the late 20th century wing.  All but two were created during the 1970's, the classic decade of Photorealism.

        Together, these pieces seem to have been chosen with an eye for variety, forming something like a sample-survey of the Photorealist movement and its wake, and for anyone growing up in the 1960’s, 70’s or early 80’s these works can’t help but invoke a nostalgia for that era. In one painting a smashed Pontiac sits abandoned beside a dirt road. There’s also a massive canvas of a graveyard, meticulously done and looking like a blown up, painted over, ten-foot-wide post-card. Across the gallery is a painting of what appear to be seven toga-clad, tussle-headed, early 1970's Manhattanites who imbibe, giggle and smile wryly at one another from the middle of an Arcadian bacchanal.

      There is something intangible about these paintings – beyond mere subject matter - that invokes the spirit of the era to anyone who lived through it: something not unlike the effect of Polaroid film.



       In hindsight it’s hard for us to see what a massive taboo these artists were breaking. First, in the 1950’s, Abstract Expressionism had ascended to the throne of “advanced painting,” and seemed poised to reign for decades, causing some critics to announce the end of representation. Then in the 60’s conceptualism arrived, knocked Ab-Ex off its throne and declared the “death of painting.” But paradoxically, Conceptualism - and then Pop - would lay the foundation for Photorealism. First conceptualism with its penchant for formula-over-spontaneity would provide license to paint in the most mechanical of ways. Pop took that license and replicated the every-day commercialism of the post war industrial boom. The possibility of photorealism grew out of these two developments.

     But not all the photorealists were working from slide projectors. Also included in the gallery are two artists who painted exclusively from life: Philip Perlstein and Gregory Gillespie. Pearlstein often strikes me as a kind of human tracing machine, with an almost inhuman eye for the human form, copying down rigid outlines and pedantically transcribing cool pink flesh tones. If it’s a graceful, spirit-filled depiction of the figure you’re looking for you might have better luck going to the local wax museum than gazing into a Perlstein. There is however, something else happening in his Two Female Models Reclining on a Cast Iron Bed, something that gets at what’s going on in the whole gallery, something that cuts to the essence of 1970's Photorealism.

               A closer look at Pearlstien's painting brings our attention to the arabesques of the cast-iron bed-post as they pass across the front figure, cropping it and leaving us with smaller segregated views of the body: a wrist overlapping the model's hip, folded hands resting on her belly, and the corner of a heel peeking out from behind the line of her calf.  Anyone who’s ever tried to draw something like this from life knows how frustrating such a problem can be. These various overlapping shapes would be constantly shifting, even with the slightest movement of the artist’s head. There would also be the effect of stereopsis, having two eyes makes you see such overlaps as doubles. 


 It would be impossible to copy this part of the painting from life; it’s been constructed in a way that implies very clearly a kind of rational intent, something like visual engineering. The story of this analytic construction is the primary content of the painting. The implications of Pearlstien’s process hit the viewer directly and more forcefully than the painting’s actual subject matter (two nudes on a bed). His painting is about thought: cold, analytical thought, and how important clear thinking is to seeing the world around us with any degree of real accuracy. This is an essential characteristic of classic Photorealism; something which can be seen as a swing away from the subjective, heroic and ineffable spirit of Abstract Expressionism, and toward the clear, the fixed and the familiar.  
                One of the charms of these paintings is their ability to combine the familiar and the casual on the one hand, with the analytical and the scrupulous on the other. It's a difficult juxtaposition to pull off, but one that these artists do in many places, and that's one of the reasons this is such a fun section of the museum to visit. So next time you're down at the VMFA, take make sure you set aside some time to see this gallery!