Photorealism has a future with landmark show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 07 January 2014

Exhibition review: Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, until March 30 2014

Colour photorealist painting of a cityscape by night
Raphaella Spence, Vegas (2011)© Raphaella Spence. Photo © Institut fur Kulturaustausch, Tubingen
Maligned and marvelled at in equal degrees, photorealism is a movement which, despite its critics, keeps evolving. So while the label conjures up Cadillacs and burger bars, this show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery contains plenty more besides.

Admittedly, we do get treated to fast food condiments by Ralph Goings, the exterior of a diner by Richard Estes, and glistening Harley Davidsons by David Parrish. These are what you might expect from the advertised show.

And it’s true, they throw up all kinds of problems. They are nostalgic, rather than radical. They are realist, rather than theoretical. Worst of all, they appear to celebrate consumerism. And since the days of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are over, in Austerity Britain this is taboo.

Yet surely what they also celebrate is painterly technique and there can be nothing wrong with that. These paintings pass for photographs. They have absorbed that imaging trick and turned it to their gain. And now that photography is a commonplace addiction, they come back with images that arrest you for so much longer than an Instragram page.

But if the subject of these paintings is, so often, a piece of familiar Americana, how do they hold the gaze? The answer lies in the craft behind them. They take hours and hours to work up in the studio and the results are pieces of intense reflection. Yes, it has long been possible to meditate over a burger bar.

Indeed, reflection is very often the subject as well as the object of these works. It is there in Robert Nefson’s rain slicked sidewalks. And there in Don Eddy’s bewildering glass filled glass tabletop. It is also there in Tom Blackwell’s department store window, in which you might look in at a mannequin and only see yourself.

Clearly these are painters in love with the medium, using stencils, airbrushes, photos and projectors. You won’t find many isolated brushstrokes in the show. There is nothing gestural. And as a result the artists themselves are pretty much effaced from the work they produce.

The only exception to this is Chuck Close, who pixelates his portraits with a grid. Call the intervention digital-photorealism. Franz Gertsch is also represented by a portrait, albeit in a blown up snapshot. It captures Dr Harald Szeemann, who was to bring photorealists to the world’s attention, curating half a dozen of them in a show at Documenta (1972).

Despite the spontaneous composition, the warm shades of tan and deep shades of blue balance one another. And Szeemann appears fresher than he might have done were this a portrait requiring him to sit for days rather than seconds. The airstream caravans and pastel movie theatres don’t prepare you for this immediate encounter with a full-bearded Swiss curator in a book-filled front room. So the times when photorealism steps beyond its usual remit are when this show gets especially interesting.

Clive Head, for example, goes beyond his peers by staging urban scenes with models, before photographing them from varying angles and painting them. Resulting slices of drab Britishness, such as Leaving the Underground are as far from apple pie as can be.

The seeming apogee of all this innovation is another London cityscape by Ben Johnson. This time many photos were required. And Johnson enlists the help of advanced software, several assistants and a large number of detailed stencils.

The scene is an early morning Trafalgar Square, seen from the roof of the National Gallery. That’s a vantage point to conjure with. And indeed this photorealist work, while still pinsharp, looks nothing like a photo. The air is too still, the streets too quiet. So this painting contends with the virtual realm along with the photographic.

Once again the scale of the work’s production, and the durational commitment involved, is at odds with its instantaneous appearance. And this paradox is the tension which keeps photorealism interesting. As records of reality, these paintings might not tell us much that is new. As feats of long concentration and fidelity to a single meaningful image, they endure.

  • Open 10am-5pm (10.30am-5pm Friday). Admission £6.50 (£5.50/£3). Follow the museum on Twitter @BM_AG.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

Colour photorealist painting of two VW Beetles in a car lot
Don Eddy, Untitled (4 VWs) (1971)© Don Eddy. Photo © 2012 foto gonzalo de la serna
Colour photo realist painting of a snack van
Joan Baeder, Pappy’s Place, Nashville, TN (1985)© John Baeder. Photo © Institut fur Kulturaustausch, Tubingen
Colour photo realist painting of a traffic jam of toy cars
Don Jacot, Rush Hour (2009)© Don Jacot. Photo © Galerie Rive Gauche, Marcel Strouk
Colour photorealist painting of condiments on the table of a restaurant
Ralph Goings, America’s Favourite (1989)© Ralph Goings Photo© Institut für Kulturaustausch, Tübingen
Colour photorealist painting of the ref;ective side panelling of a classi car
Peter Maier, Gator Chomp (2007)© Peter Maier, Photo © Institut fur Kulturaustausch, Tubingen
Colour photorealist painting of a derelict car in front of a static caravan
John Salt, White Chevy – Red Trailer (1975)© John Salt. Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

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Latest comment: >Make a comment
It's defensive, I'll give you that. But the genre's been written off and as the show demonstrated it still has legs. Hence the headline. Thanks for the feedback tho'. Mark Sheerin
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