IMITATION OF LIFE: REALLY? (GROUP SHOW CURATED BY BETH RUDIN DEWOODY)
Wilding Cran Gallery, 939 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles 90021 – through December 23, 2017
by Ezrha Jean Black
December 23, 2017
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 19th century 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 also a 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, doubling 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.)
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