My first motive in writing this review of “Still Life: 1970s Photorealism” — to say “Go, go see this” — is accomplished in few words. The second motive — to say, “This is what I saw” — takes a couple hundred more. Today I recorded the things I saw speaking into my iPhone. This review is the direct transcription of that Voice Memo, with some edits made for clarity and brevity.
The walls are orange. And there is a man sitting in the corner with newspapers and a beer. He is hanging out after a long day of work. Or maybe this is his work. Next to him the headline of the sports magazine reads: “More Bad Luck.” It’s a copy of the New Haven Register. One wonders if an actual New Haven newspaper was part of Duane Hanson’s original sculpture installation.
“It’s Open” reads the poster above the Louisiana Superdome and immediately, from the effects of lights shining on other lights, I think, “This is real.” It really does look like a photograph until I see the Kentucky Fried Chicken scene, whose outlined letters are too sketched and nervous to be real, although that blurring sketchy quality was probably a real property of the original light that just appears fake here. This painting, Noel Mahaffey’s “Louisiana Superdome — Times Square” (1977), makes for a different greeting than the seated man but an equally strong opening impression. And it also immediately raises what seems to be one of the tacit questions of the show (besides the unanswerable question, “What is realism?”) which is: When pursuing this fidelity to the photographic style, why does the artist choose to break from it?
The opening hallway’s drawings and paintings announce some of the problems staged by photorealism. There’s something mechanical, Teutonic and draftman-like in some of the paintings collected from the Documenta 5 exhibition of 1972. These works appear more as exercises than as finished pieces and as I say this, I see that that guy sitting in the chair with his beer is still watching me.
My favorite painting in the show is probably of the tangerines, called “Tangerine Sugar” by Ben Schonzeit. You can see the luscious flesh of the tangerine almost bursting into Rorschach abstraction yet still remaining a most real, chaotic, juicy, membranous offering. It is dripping with some solidity, but it also seems as though it could float away into ephemeral dots of its own pastel at any moment.
In contrast to the lively colors of that tangerine, there are the fruits of John Clem Clarke. He paints a quince (which I’ve been told is a type of pear), a melon and a cucumber. And his weirdly dark arrangement recalls those Spanish still-life paintings by Zurbaran or kitchen life paintings from the 16th and 17th century.
The Chuck Close portrait is also amazing because it is sad. In its attempt to capture everything perfectly, there is something tragic about the fact that the attempt might always be a failure.
There’s a cool Richter at the show as well — “Portrait of Holger Friedrich” — where Richter’s characteristic blur shows the photograph as a process, as a moment in time, as a shake of the hand over a negative in the studio. It reminds me of when a painter chooses to show his brushstrokes, or paint his own hand, painting. And the exactitude of his blurring seems even harder to “get right” than simple clarity would be.
Why a show about photorealism? How can we think through Los Angeles, urbanism, New York, automobile culture, with these paintings?
In one nook, there’s a grouping of cityscape paintings of cars and diners and old homes and streets and small businesses and country Chevrolets that are coming and going and the dust is California, and Sacramento, if you keeping driving, is just around the bend. If you walk around the whole room, it’s like you’re driving up to Sacramento getting all of these sights and snapshots of all the things you see from the car for a second and then remember and then forget soon thereafter. This car-ride effect is the most successful curatorial choice in the show.
On the flipside, Duane Hanson’s “Drug Addict” is the worst-placed object in the show. It used to be placed downstairs on the first floor of the YUAG around a corner, and you used to just turn around and walk into it and that was very surprising. Here he seems denied the agency of surprise. Still, the pain and the shock and the reality of his pain are probably somehow better amplified by the white walls of this museum space than on the street, as just another object.
The last painting I want to talk about is the gigantic face of “Giummo” by Ben Schonzeit, who also painted the tangerines. Giummo is a guy who looks like an aging rock star with black curly hair and big aviator glasses for reading. You can see the black stubble on his beard, and half his face is cast into shadow — it’s a profile perdu and it’s so sad because he’s looking at us but he’s not looking at us. And his nose is red and burned from too much sun, and his skin feels oily and aged and he’s like plastic or cellophane.
You want to reach out and touch him, but when you do, you don’t get anything back. And that darkness is obviously enhanced or lost by his mass of hair and he’s looming like the blurry Richter painting of the photo of Holger Friedrich but he isn’t because isn’t he real?