An Optical Illusion At The Southampton City Art Gallery

By Amelia Austin | 19 December 2003
Shows a very life-like looking painting of two cars parked in front of a caravan. On the caravan is the sign 'A-OK Auto Sales'. Behind the caravan is a bill board with the picture of a girl and the slogan 'Help kids buy a balloon'.

Photo: A-OK Autos, 2002/3 by John Salt © the artist.

Amelia Austin went to Southampton City Art Gallery for a retrospective of John Salt's work and to see how life-like his paintings really are.

The desolate streets and rural badlands of America have never looked as good as they do at an exhibition of John Salt’s work currently adorning the walls of Southampton City Art Gallery. The Hidden Hand, running until March 7, 2004, is a collection of the artist’s labours of love.

Gallery seven has been transformed into a homage to the American photorealist movement. The large-scale oil and *casein works and smaller watercolours are hung in chronological order.

They have been created using an airbrush and lots of lace like stencils that build up the layers of the images and trick the eye into believing they are photographs. It is only on closer inspection that the incredible complexity of the life-like compositions becomes apparent.

Shows a painting of a car parked in front of a red and white static caravan.

Photo: White Chevy, Red Trailer, 1975 by John Salt © the artist. On loan from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

What amazes me is that Salt’s artistic hand is truly hidden. There is no hint of personal feeling in the images themselves.

He constructs the canvases with intricate methods that involve neither brush mark nor pencil line, with only the subject matter hinting at his personality.

Each painting is a carbon copy of the photographs he takes and reflects the curiosity he has for automobiles and the gritty underbelly of the failed American dream.

Shows part of the painting in the first picture. It features one of the cars, behind which is the A-OK caravan and the bill board.

Photo: A-OK Autos (detail), 2002/3 by John Salt © the artist.

To see the exhibition on a website or through pictures is to do it an injustice. To see a picture of a painting that was copied from a photograph almost defeats the object of these works of art.

They must be appreciated in the flesh and pondered over up close as well as from a distance. Only then will the true beauty and mind-boggling detail of the works become apparent.

Gallery eight is composed of lithographs from Salt’s personal collection, which act as an interesting compliment to his works.

Show a shot of the gallery showing four of Salts pictures hanging on a light coloured wall.

Photo: Exhibition installation. Picture courtesy of Southampton City Art Gallery.

The suite includes an interesting work by Salt and works by his friends and colleagues, who were involved in the Documenta art exhibitions that took place from the mid 1950s onwards. It was the fifth in this series, 'Documenta 5' which bought the infant photorealist movement to the masses and introduced new ways of seeing.

John Salt will be discussing his work, his subject matter and its relationship with reality at the gallery from 2.30pm to 3.30pm on Sunday January 11, 2004. There will also be a curator’s talk by Tim Craven on Sunday February 8, 2004 from 2.30pm to 3.30pm, which will focus on the works of first generation photorealist artists.

*casein is a waterbased paint made with a protein precipitated from milk

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