Photorealism’s Long Appeal

This presentation of the movement demonstrates a five-decade siren call to those who have appreciated the inherent complexities and challenges in the genre
Audrey Flack’s “Wheel of Fortune,” painted from 1977 to 1978, is a modern-day vanitas still life. Audrey Flack

“From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today” at the Parrish Art Museum has taken a critical hit in some quarters, some of it deserved and some less so. 

This presentation of the movement, which has had a far longer appeal to artists than many might otherwise assume, demonstrates a five-decade siren call to those who have appreciated the inherent complexities and challenges in the genre.

Before launching into an analysis of the background and merits of the style, it is worth noting that the Parrish show is fun. Although many practitioners of the genre are subdued in their approach, the paintings by Charles Bell and Audrey Flack, a longtime resident of Springs, are full of life and gaudy garishness. Mr. Bell’s pinball games, toys, and gumballs are the kind of visual stimulus that parents live for in a museum outing with their kids.

Ms. Flack’s modern vanitas painting “Wheel of Fortune” has allusions to traditional vanitas still-life painting: a skull, mirrors, fruit, a candle, and an hourglass. That the fruit is plastic and many of the objects portrayed look gaudy and cheap, serves as a critique of modern consumerism. The skull and hourglass have the same purpose they always have in these types of paintings, to point out that time is fleeting and that objects and achievements on earth are merely a form of vanity. By using such junky trinkets, the artist implies an even higher degree of worthlessness of these earthly goods.

The advent of the photographic image in the 19th century and the development of printing processes that were more accessible to the general public were heralded as the death of painting by many contemporary observers. It is no coincidence that the urge toward abstraction came out of a reaction to photography’s presumed objective replication of reality and the multiplicity of views offered by motion pictures early in the 20th century.

Earlier in the 19th century, trompe l’oeil painters managed to create paintings that looked so real they “fooled the eye” as the term means in French. The tricks they used tended toward flattened objects such as bits of paper tacked to a door. In the rush to embrace or react to the new technology, their virtuoso contributions were largely forgotten.

With a few exceptions, abstraction became the exalted norm of major urban artist colonies and the international avant garde for most of the 20th century. Why bother representing objects, people, and landscapes when the photograph was supreme in achieving that goal? Abstraction gave artists a renewed sense of purpose, and exalted the subjective artistic response.

This began to change in the 1960s with the co-option of slick images from advertising by the practioners of Pop Art. The earliest Photorealist paintings by pioneers such as Robert Bechtle, Robert Cottingham, and Richard Estes tended toward drab color and mundane details of American life captured in amateur snapshots. By the late 1970s and 1980s color became brighter and sometimes garish.

Surface was often a focus of the artwork. Shiny and slick metallic finishes, neon signs, water, and glass all made for moments of wow. The smooth finish of the paintings kept the artist’s hand out of the work in the way of Pop and Minimalism, but the artists are clearly present in the performative aspect of creating their dazzling replication of reality. This is realism not as it exists, but as it has been captured on film. The distinction is important given the subtle manipulation that photos perform on the scenes and subjects they capture. There’s a blurriness in the shadows and an overall flattening effect that becomes more pronounced the wider the range of subject, i.e. broad expanses of landscape or cityscape look more strongly two-dimensional than close-ups and tight crops. The Trompe l’Oeil painters also intuited this. Once they tried panning out and away from tight close-ups, the illusion broke down.

It’s difficult to see this show and not think about it in terms of Instagram. Our own reality has become two-dimensional and square as we rush to share and take in the mundane, colorful, or profound moments of our lives. Many of the paintings seem like they have been filtered with Hudson, Ludwig, Aden, or Perpetua, just a few of the app’s modifying features. It has an effect on the aura of these art objects. They can seem like just one more piece of visual information to take in and cast off with a swipe of a thumb. 

The show remains on view through Jan. 21.

Peter Maier’s “Jaws,” from 2009, achieves its high-gloss surface through a paint used in auto body shops applied to an aluminum panel. Peter Maier