Picasso knew what he was up against – literally. He pasted it into his art, more or less inventing collage in the process. He (along with a few of his other Cubist colleagues) also played with trompe l’oeil, but he understood this wasn’t the same thing – a device rather than an actuality or contending force. This was not about gesture; this was a defining act, a new claim on reality; but also the flip side of that notion: the deconstruction of illusionism – willful, yet felicitous, witty, sardonic. Collage was on one level (but only one of many) an attempt to reconcile, to synthesize these domains (though the ‘synthetic’ description has always been spurious overreach); but above all Picasso always confronted and challenged. There’s the chair caning, the odd paper fragments, sheet music; also, teasingly, insertions of conventionally representational objects; but perhaps most significantly, newspaper fragments.
He was up against a world here; but this was a world reported, narrated, told (and arguably sold) to us. This was not what ‘reality’ once signified. This was a spectacle in motion; and we were losing a specific experiential purchase on it. Picasso’s 19thcentury predecessors got that we didn’t see or experience reality in quite the same way we had before the Revolutions – national and industrial; but they didn’t quite comprehend the extent to which the changes in the ways their audience lived had profoundly altered that experience.
But neither Picasso nor his audience – nor any audience – could entirely forget, dismiss or set aside that experience, because it’s so much larger than simply seeing. It goes beyond apprehension to a kind of possession, or at least recapture. Seeing invoked or implicated the tactile, the ambient and atmospheric, the temporal, the olfactory and gustatory. We wanted to touch, hold, recapture the stuff of it and its singular moment. (And we can probably dismiss a lot of cant about the ‘participatory’ right there.)
The social and political implications are also quite clear. No one crystallized the exasperation better than Duchamp (but even his sly dismissals of the ‘retinal’ and ‘olfactory’ have a way of showing his hand). Then, too, the compartmentalization and alienation of the discrete senses was another by-product of industrial civilization.
In the meantime, film and photography moved forward in their own unrelenting trajectory – recapturing, recording, documenting (and yes, selling) that world once made and re-made in painting and drawing; also mirroring, doubling that world – alternately correcting, revising, and multiplying those world(s) we now saw in a more complicated light, both physically and psychologically.
Until Conceptualism and media arts really opened the floodgates, seriously realist art occupied an almost hermetic space in the fine arts domain. But since the Pictures Generation, we’ve begun to see contemporary art seriously reclaim realism for its own post-photography, post-Pop, post-Conceptual uses. Although we began to see this emergence in the late 20th century, the field has only opened to its full potential diversity in this century – and that diversity is on brilliant display in Beth Rudin DeWoody’s show for Wilding Cran – Really? This multiverse reclaim and recapture extends to that other traditional medium – sculpture; and DeWoody has included some astonishing specimens among the paintings and drawings.
The range of work is cumulatively breathtaking. Inevitably, DeWoody includes work by Vija Celmins (a pure Ocean surface – actually quite recently produced), also Marilyn Minter, spinning off photorealist preoccupations – but with their ironies fully considered. (Minter’s oil on canvas gives us the frame, the less-than-perfect ‘print’ of the broken glass – our ‘framing of the document.’). Judie Bamber’s watercolor, Mom with Dad’s Painting (2013) is almost emblematic of this repurchase and restatement on realism. ‘Mom’ sits (adorably – in a black dress with black stockings and white ankle boots), as if in a Kodachrome snapshot (the watercolor approximates this tonal range) before ‘Dad’s’ essentially abstract painting – black-framed in orangey hues. The subject’s expression is slightly coy – and why not? It’s a retaking in every sense: the classic subject (an ‘arrangement’ in Kodachrome/Pantone), asserting primacy and stating a frank repossession of this specific space. Bamber does not take us ‘there’; she takes us here – in the real space unfolded in her own eyes and mind. Jesse Benson uses a similar strategy (and, coincidentally, palette) in exploring related notions of possession, holding, framing – and more specifically displacement – with emphasis on the offset, compartmentalized focus of surveillance.
Amy Bennett in turn gives us one of her classic restagings of a remodeled world, frozen from a narrative that unfolds in an entirely interior, imaginary (albeit meticulously modeled) domain. The quasi-photorealist painting of certain artists lends itself easily to satire, and Kristin Calabrese’s felicitously rendered glass-front No Shit Store (2016), with its grease-stained and casually littered parking lot, is one brilliantly executed example of this. But DeWoody also gives us a sense of how post-Conceptual 21st century varieties of photorealism have exploded its technical and conceptual range. This has not a little to do with the influence of certain Pictures artists and almost certainly Gerhard Richter. Contemporary artists have moved into that ‘blur’, so to speak, and well beyond (the faded, the cropped, the restaged/reframed, angled and pitched, spotlit and strobed), to deliver a kind of fragmented or microcosmic moment.
It’s no accident that (as in the Minter painting), the ‘frame’ figures so importantly in much of this work. If Cubism propagated the notion of the ‘painting-object’, photography further ‘objectified’ the document, and its apprehension and portability – but also its fragility, its ephemerality. Here we’re given a variety of commentary on this fragility, and ultimately the reliability and veracity of such an image. Richard Forster’s roughly foot-square pencil drawings – one a dessicated nature study, the other something resembling a news-wire photo of a political march or rally, with background and immediate foreground in soft focus – crystallize this tenuous grasp, its temporal instability. It’s the found object – the object we don’t really see or read until we’re holding it in our hands.
Then there’s what we never really see – what really cannot be held, but merely ‘beheld’ (yet which underscores realism’s power)– the atmospheric, the aura. It reads as a far cry from the souvenir-object (found or fantasized), but in actuality simply represents a different kind of souvenir. (Tim Gardner’s, Scott Hunt’s and Devin Leonardi’s very different subjects and styles of painting and drawing give a sense of how broad that range is.) No small coincidence that atmosphere connotes a spatial dimension: the space of these varied ‘realities’ is both physical and psychological. It’s also variously factual and fictional (and sometimes both at once). Hunt’s and Leonardi’s distinct subjects and styles bear this out dramatically. Where Leonardi’s blurred figures against a flat yet perspectival space make for ambiguous documentary (with a suggestion of an ‘unreliable narrator’), Hunt’s eccentrically, dramatically ‘cropped’ and focused images occupy a space between selective memory and fiction. (Consider Hunt’s roughly 4-foot long ‘frame’ with its statuesque subject in a cocktail dress and apparently turned over the knee of a presumably male figure while her Scottie looks on; or two smaller subjects – a very dated looking quartet of boys playing around a tree-stump pedestal, or the more roughly executed woman sunning herself a few feet away from a garish, vaguely Coney Island-looking amusement.)
These belong to no moment, ‘decisive’ or otherwise – unless that moment is conceived of as a continuous stream of infinitely expanding and contracting duration. Sometimes they come to a dead stop. It’s the existential quandary that seems to be realism’s through-line for the last three or four thousand years. (Mike Bayne’s drawings have this quality – When Was It Last Changed one of his postcard-scaled panels asks us. Well never, I guess.) The realism of this century is not afraid to ask whether it’s all an illusion – or just a digression in that much bigger illusion that is our planet orbiting its star. They invite us to zoom in to ‘touch’ only to stop us dead in their airless, vacuum space (e.g., Mary Henderson’s Winter Coats). And then (when you least expect it?) DeWoody gives us something that takes us all the way back to Dürer and right back to a present-imperfect news photo of the highest definition available. It’s a kind of defeat of the tactile – alternately drawing us in to a kind of micro-precision (exemplified here in Patrick Lee’s Deadly Friends (Fuck the Law)) that repels or terrifies, or into a zone of deliberate imprecision (e.g., Des Lawrence’s Obituary Portrait: Sandra Dee, or Howard Kanovitz’s bemused model, Caroline).
Elsewhere, no aspect of the photorealist spectrum goes unexplored, from the sheer photo-painterly virtuosity of Yigal Ozeri (Shelly, 2017), to the manipulated atmospherics implied in the aforementioned mood studies, to willful editorial distortions. Taxonomy merges with the temporal in Rachel Hecker’s Matchstick Arrangement (2017) – where hyper-realism veers into the domain of the blur. Really?– you may find yourself whispering to yourself at about this point. Well, sure. To put an actual question mark to it underscores how open-ended the conceptual parameters – their seriousness, their variable stability and contingency – are. The title presses our faith, our credence; also our presence and participation; our willingness to engage, play the game, consent to its terms, buy into it.
And then we’re back into a tactile realm again (and I’ve scarcely mentioned the sculptures!). In Victoria Gitman’s study (which might be inspired by some beaded fabric – a dress or evening bag), On Display (2010), we have in a sense the ‘gestural’ transmogrified to the ‘textural’ (the visual puns and ironies never stop in a show a like this) – in an all-over pattern which if you break it down is really only a hairsbreadth distant from the cartoon Pop-schematic ‘gesture’ of Roy Lichtenstein, sending up his own AbEx predecessors.
I don’t think DeWoody is necessarily pressing an overtly ‘historicist’ gloss on the evolving art historical trajectory. The point here is that this kind of representation never really disappeared and that it has and will continue to evolve under the entire constellation of influences that will always condition the work artists create. Beth Rudin DeWoody may be an almost ideal contemporary art collector – committed, adventurous, astute and passionate. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised to see that rapacious intelligence applied so successfully to this curatorial project – but the scope and insight that informed the show as a whole and almost every single work selected for it left more than a few of us breathless. Really? You better believe it.
– Ezrha Jean Black