Review of Real, Realer, Realist exhibition:
From the Renaissance through the neoclassical period, figure painting based on close observation and skilled execution was the most prestigious form of artistic expression. Though this status was considerably diminished during the Romantic, Modern, and Post-Modern periods, it is clear today that realistic figure painting has made a quiet but definite comeback. The exhibition Real, Realer, Realist, curated by Daniel Pfalzgraf, provides an excellent opportunity to see contemporary realist paintings from established national artists and rising stars. The show at the Green Building, 752 East Market St. in Louisville, KY, runs from February 22-April 10 2013. Pfalzgraf is director of the Green Building Gallery which is located on the ground floor.
The Green Building in Louisville opened in the fall of 2008 in the East Market District, the heart of NuLu, Louisville’s arts district and it is the first commercial building in Louisville to go for LEED platinum certification (the US Green Building Council’s designation of a sustainable building). Intent upon rescuing the building from decades of misuse, the project included resuscitating the structural masonry shell and infusing it with a modern core, including a 40 foot high lobby, expansive natural lighting, eco-friendly materials, and renewable energy systems, as well as extensive solar power, geothermal wells, and recycled denim insulation.
There are fifteen paintings in the show and the works have been astutely paired so that they complement each other but each work also has enough space to be contemplated individually. In these paintings meaning is embodied in the marks and colors and has been arrived at though an extended dialog between eye, mind, and hand: you won’t find didactic proclamations or overt political commentary, but the show does deliver psychological depth complex pleasure.
The most striking painting in the gallery is Chloe by Kelly Phelps (54X48” oil on linen) in which the life-size figure is dressed in black, seated in front of a dark tree, and the dark tones contrast sharply with brightly colored fall leaves. The painting makes a big impact from a distance but doesn’t disappoint on closer viewing: in contrast to the loosely painted background and rough tree bark the skin tones of the face have been subtly modulated and carefully blended. There are fallen leaves and a black dress, but the unusual pose and lifelike rendering of the face and hands offsets suggestions of death: The figure seems to grow along with the tree and the painting achieves a thematic balance of old age and youth, death and renewal. In this light the title of the painting connects to the Greek khlóē, an epithet for Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility, grain, and agriculture, who is also responsible for creating winter and the changing seasons.
Adjacent to Chloe is the most psychologically complex work in the show, Self Portrait as Widow (36X24” pastel on Wallis museum grade) by Gaela Erwin. The sitter here is also clothed in black but in this work the formal symmetry of the natural background serves to intensify the distance between art and reality, nature and perception. In the painting we see denial, anger, grief, but not acceptance. Erwin’s intense stare goes through the viewer and seems fixed on a metaphorical mirror as the painting fuses artistic discovery and psychological self-exploration. Erwin’s masterful interplay between line and edge—heightened by the pastel medium—serves to embody the tensions within the work: in some cases the lines are left unaltered and we glimpse the creative process in its most intimate manifestation. These calligraphic lines, like the ones that define seams on the long black gloves, also carry an abstract, self-referential beauty. In other sections of the painting we see skillfully executed edges that leave little trace of the artist’s hand. In subject matter and execution Erwin’s painting intensifies the inherent dualities of the self-portrait genre: artist/model, public/private, actor/role, archetype/individual are all in play, and the more you look at the painting the more mysterious it becomes.
In the atrium, just outside of the gallery, hang several works by Salvador J. Villagran Jr., including the life-size figure painting Waiting (60X48” oil on linen). There is much to see here and along with the skillful draftsmanship and detailed rendering there is a rich interplay between warm and cool colors, particularly the complex greens and flesh tones. The figure reflected in the mirror adds symbolic potential to the sense of anticipation as one window illuminates the figure and the other window is a portal to a mysterious outer world. In classic vanitas fashion Villagran has included a skull behind the sitter and her arm forms a visual bridge between flesh and bone as our eyes are directed from the skull toward the woman’s youthful face.
A more powerful memento mori however is Villagran’s humble portrait entitled Jim (18X14” oil on panel). Villagran’s depiction of the subject’s brawny, tan body suggests a life of achievement and continued virility. The eyes on the other hand provide a sensitive suggestion of middle-age doubt. The question seems to be not “what happens when I die?” but “Have I lived the right life up to now?”
In contrast Steven Assael’s The Swimmer (36X20” oil on canvas) effuses confidence both in the depiction of the model and in the rough but sure-handed application of paint. Assael’s skin tones bring to mind You +1’d this publicly. UndoWillem de Kooning’s statement that “flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” The translucent quality that Assael achieves helps establish the model’s age, and the interplay between the loosely descriptive passages on the figure’s abdomen and the abstract jabs of paint in the background is powerful. This celebration of imperfection, age, and rugged textures brings to mind the Japanese wabi sabi aesthetic. The thick and painterly surface also acts as a kind of palimpsest, revealing layers of time and process that are consonant with the overall psychological impact of the painting: though he has been through a lot, the swimmer seems to look forward to the next cold splash of experience.
Assael’s other work Cassandra Twice (27X17”oil on board) features the same painterly style but with more dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro. The foreground Cassandra seems outwardly focused and even confrontational, while in the second rendering she seems self-absorbed. By painting two versions of the same model in the same painting Assael adds depth to the portrayal of the model and also to questions implicit in the practice of figure painting from live models. When an established artist paints a nude figure today one wonders how (or if) the political dimensions of class and gender have changed within this relationship since the Renaissance. An interesting aspect of contemporary realism is that although many paintings address “identity politics,” the objectivity that the process demands makes it impossible to know the identity of the artist based on the art itself. Given an overview of contemporary figure paintings you would be quite wrong to assume that most works that resemble those of the “old masters” were painted by white men.
In a work fraught with political possibilities, Kelly Phelps’ Transition (self portrait) (9X12” oil on panel) could be compared to works by Alyssa Monks, Lee Price, Nathalie Vogel, and Cynthia Westwood in the surprisingly large and active subgenre of young women who paint themselves or other young women bathing. As is the case with works by these other painters, Phelps’ painting invites but also defies a generalized interpretation. Unlike a traditional self-portrait pose Phelps’ eyes are averted and the viewer is given a position above the figure. The erotic charge of the image however is both enhanced and undermined by a sense of extreme vulnerability as conveyed through the rendering of wet and porous skin. Phelps doesn’t rely on depiction of water drops or waves, but through subtle blending of warm and cool tones she brings to life a varied landscape of submerged and partially dry flesh. Submersion in water is a nearly universal and timeless vehicle for physical and spiritual transformation, and in this case we seem to be voyeuristically viewing the transition midway through the process.
Phelps describes her paintings as “introspective moments that keep the viewer guessing” and that description fits all of the paintings in this exhibition. We can look for clues and project our interpretations on these works, but this kind of art has more to offer than conceptual and literary meaning. Modern and postmodern critical theory elevates hermeneutics and dismisses enjoyment of art, but today’s realist painting reestablishes sensual pleasure and the timeless magic of illusionism. The goal of creating a beautiful painting may seem humble, but a beautiful painting is profound in a way that transcends contemporary politics or social commentary. In defense of formalist abstraction Matisse wrote that “The goal of painting is not to represent nature but to create a parallel universe to nature.”1 This idea actually works for realism as well: when viewing a lifelike painting we may think “it looks so real” but we are never actually fooled. Realism provides an accessible vehicle for appreciation of mastery. We don’t need to understand musical intervals or even care about lyrics to be moved by a great singer’s voice. And in realistic painting we don’t need to understand color theory, perspective, proportion, symbolism, or composition: seeing the individual brush marks of a great painting we see the world through the artist’s inspired eyes and skilled hands. As Joseph Campbell describes it “The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object….you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.”2
1. Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter”
2. Joseph Campbell, from lectures on [James] Joyce
Rick Bennett is a member of the Art and Art History faculty at Hanover College, Hanover Indiana. He is also a painter who is represented in Louisville, Kentucky by Swanson Contemporary Gallery http://www.swansonreedgallery.com/
and in Carmel, Indiana by Eye on Art Gallery http://eyeonartgallery.blogspot.com/
Eye on Art will present a solo exhibition of Bennett’s work from April 13 through May 8, 2013.
Bennett’s web address is: https://profiles.google.com/rickbennettartandmusic#rickbennettartandmusic/about