After more than a decade of neglect, the Yale University Art Gallery is bringing photorealism back.
A new exhibit — “Still Life: 1970s Photorealism” — features 22 paintings and three sculptures that exemplify the movement’s dedication to meticulous verisimilitude. According to the exhibit’s materials, the photorealists are typically seen as a lesser-known outgrowth of ’60s Pop Art, with its similar focus on dazzlingly accurate reproductions of preexisting images. That said, the group tended to shy away from Pop’s overtly commercial bent, forgoing the advertisements and comic strips of their predecessors in favor of the everyday, as evidenced by the works on display at the YUAG.
Set against whitewashed walls, the paintings run the gamut from floral arrangements in jarringly vivid colors to retro diners, neon signs and oxidized shells of Chevrolets that nod to bygone, post-war Americana. On tap as well are several token examples of macrophotography, at least one magazine cover and more than a few depictions of garbage, a subject which, curator Cathleen Chaffee added, always seemed to fascinate the photorealists.
She mentioned that one of her exhibition favorites is Bruce Everett’s “Gum Wrapper” (1971—’72), an oil-paint rendition of a scrap of crumpled metallic candy packaging that takes up the greater part of a wall. An incredible exercise in detail, the painting translates the camera’s optical effects — and shortcomings — onto canvas, visibly demonstrating its limitations as a technological device, she explained. More of the curator’s personal highlights include the juxtaposition between Robert Bechtle’s “Sacramento Montego” (1980) and Ralph Goings’ “Walt’s Restaurant,” (1978-’79) which share a wall. Chaffee recalled that in a fateful twist, Goings is actually the figure featured in Bechtle’s painting, a fact discovered only after Goings came to visit the exhibit.
As commonplace as the subject matter of these works may seem, the breadth of photorealist work the exhibit features is anything but everyday. Chaffee noted, for example, the rarity of seeing more than one ”hyperreal” — simply another term for the movement broadened to include 3D media — sculpture in any one exposition. Most museums, she said, have at most two, making Yale’s collection of three particularly extraordinary.
And Chaffee was not the only one impressed by these astoundingly lifelike creations — throughout the exhibit, spectators marveled at their authenticity.
“We have a lot of people come up and actually ask us if they’re real,” one security guard explained. “That’s how accurate they are.”
Another viewer, Evangeline Cadieux-Mauro, cited this incredible realism as well, saying, “[The paintings] are so lifelike, it’s really amazing.”
Drawn predominantly from the University’s own holdings, many of which — not unlike photorealism itself — have long been shelved, the work has, in Chaffee’s eyes, poignant contemporary resonance.
“Our relationship with hyper-realistic images has been revolutionized in the past few years,” Chaffee said. “Today, we’re constantly subjected to this barrage of pictures, via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messages and so on.”
The movement, she pointed out, is very much a presentation and exploration of the relationship we have with images, and — particularly for modern viewers — toys with our expectations and definitions of what constitutes photography or realism.
So call it the 70s’ answer to Instagram, the average Joe to Pop Art’s Marilyn, or whatever you please: Photorealism is here to stay — until next March, at least.
The exhibition opened on Aug. 30 and runs through March 9.