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Photorealism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Style of painting, printmaking and sculpture that originated in the USA in the mid-1960s, involving the precise reproduction of a photograph in paint or the mimicking of real objects in sculpture. Its pioneers included the painters Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack (b 1931), Robert Bechtle (b 1932), Robert Cottingham (b 1935), Richard McLean (b 1934), Don Eddy and the English painter John Salt (b 1937), and sculptors such as Duane Hanson and John De Andrea. Though essentially an American movement, it has also had exponents in Europe, such as Franz Gertsch.

In terms both of its imagery of mass-produced objects and suburban life and of the premise of replicating an existing artefact with no apparent comment, Photorealism emerged as an offshoot of Pop art. Despite clear stylistic differences, it is also close to Minimalism in its cool, detached approach and to conceptual art in its concern with the work of art as a physical manifestation of an idea. Its relationship to modernism was, however, somewhat awkward. Many critics attacked it as a betrayal of modernist principles, reactionary in its return to a representational illusionism. As with Pop art, its rejection of élitism, in its apparent appeal to popular taste and to comprehensibility, was judged by many to be anti-modernist. Paradoxically, however, its blatant presentation of a trompe l’oeil style and its reliance on photographic images forced to the forefront, in the modernist tradition, a consciousness of the medium as an end in itself. In its meticulous technique and objective rendering of surface appearance Photorealism has a long line of historical predecessors stretching from veristic Surrealism and 19th-century academic painting back to 17th-century Dutch painting and further to the works of Jan van Eyck. Culturally closer are pictures painted in a trompe l’oeil manner by American artists such as James Peale, John F. Peto, William Michael Harnett and later by the American Precisionists such as Charles Sheeler.

Morley, in his innovative paintings of ships from 1965 and 1966, such as ‘SS Rotterdam’ (1966; London, Saatchi Col., see Lindey, p. 46), used a grid to reproduce the original photographic image in detail, often turning the canvas and photograph upside down to avoid stylization. His main concern in these works was with the colours and style of mechanically produced images from postcards, brochures and so on, subject-matter itself being of no importance. This professed disinterest in subjects was a hallmark of Photorealism. The works invariably depict banal features of the urban environment such as motor-cars, shops, streets and consumer products in a cool, objective manner using ordinary brushes or airbrushes, as in Bechtle’s ’71 Buick (1972; New York, Guggenheim). Human figures are also treated in the same detached fashion, which tends to dehumanize them, as in Close’s Self-portrait (1968; Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent.), in which no attempt has been made to conceal the distortions of focus present in the original photograph.

Despite frequent denials by the artists, the choice of banal subjects with no centres of interest was almost inevitably read as a commentary on the hollowness of the society from which it derived. Such social references are made all the more specific through the sense of place and culture that pervades Photorealist works: whether through conscious design or otherwise, the paintings are invariably recognizably American. Although a satirical aspect is perhaps most evident in sculptures depicting human figures, such as Hanson’s grotesque Tourists (polyester and fibreglass polychromed in oil, with accessories, life-size, 1970; Edinburgh, N.G. Mod. A.), there is a sense of social observation, with a hint of the nostalgia associated with documentary photography, even in paintings apparently dedicated purely to perceptual problems, such as Estes’s the Candy Store (1969; New York, Whitney).

Photorealist sculpture as produced by Hanson, De Andrea and others follows much the same principles, though it strives to mimic real objects rather than photographs. Wax models and the sculptures of George Segal and Claes Oldenburg provide historical precedents, though their work is less persistently deceptive. Much Photorealist sculpture is cast directly from human figures, a process directly related to that used by Segal, although in place of plaster their preference was for fibreglass, which gave a smoother finish and allowed for a detailed painting of the surface, as in Hanson’s Football Players (1969; Aachen, Neue Gal.). There are also veristic sculptures of mundane objects, such as Golf Bag (1976; New York, O. K. Harris Gal.; see Lucie-Smith, p. 76) by Marilyn Levine (b 1935). In the works of Levine or the Japanese sculptor Fumio Yoshimura (b 1926) the aim was largely to reproduce objects in unexpected materials, Levine often representing soft objects such as leather jackets in ceramics and Yoshimura producing detailed replicas in wood of such things as a motor-cycle or old typewriter. Unlike most exponents of Photorealism, Hanson admitted to having a social message in his work, pointing through it to the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of suburban existence. He also produced overtly political sculptures, such as War (1969; Duisburg, Lehmbruck-Mus.). Largely, however, as in Photorealist painting, the social comment is more concealed, as in De Andrea’s Clothed Artist and Model (1976; New York, O. K. Harris Gal.; see Lindey, p. 136) and other impassive life-sized figures presented blankly as intrusions of reality all the more shocking for their banal and familiar appearance.

Angela H. Moor, Ian L. Moor
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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