You don’t usually find drunks falling into a stupor, zoned-out drug addicts, and pregnant women wearing only their underwear in Yale University Art Gallery’s elegant new exhibition spaces.
You do find them—or versions of them, composed of fiberglass and polyester resin—among the eye-opening objects and paintings in Still Life: 1970s Photorealism.
The new show runs at the gallery through March 9. (Click here for an article about another striking new show, Red Grooms: Larger Than Life.)
In the 1970s artists such as Chuck Close and John Baeder used Poloroids or snapshots of modest subjects that they then either projected onto a screen or applied as a grid to create huge oil and acrylic paintings on canvas or lithographs..
At the time these humble, anonymous images of car engines, old Valiants, and threadbare Las Vegas motels were viewed as a democratic response to the Pop Art imagery by artists like Andy Warhol, who elevated, if through a cool distance, celebrity brands and images like Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup.
“The [Photorealism] movement has a reputation for nostalgia for diners and cars, [but] so many images are non-heroic, [with] stasis,” said Cathleen Chaffee, the curator who organized the new Yale exhibition.
Thus the name for the show: Still Life.
The sculptures surprise you as they pop up around walls and in corners. Two strung-out dudes by Duane Hanson and the under-clothed pregnant woman by John DeAndrea suggest the moribund and comatose.
These three-dimensional images are based on “real” people, so that you want to come close to them and touch, as you do the paintings, to see if it’s your cousin Ralph you haven’t seen in the three years since he took a bad turn.
I know for a fact that I have in my closet a pair of shoes identical to the work boots that Duane Hanson’s Man in Chair with Beer is wearing. Mine, which indeed go back about 40 years, are in even worse shape.
Most of the works belong to Yale, but have not been able to be displayed together because of their size. The gallery’s expansion, with the creation of the spacious special exhibition galleries, has made shows like this possible, Chaffee said.
If you were spooked by the sculptures and walked too quickly by the 33 paintings, you’d be forgiven for thinking the images are somehow skillfully touched up photographic prints.
And that’s the point, sort of. In fact, unlike a photograph, which is created mechanically by light, all the works in the show are painted by the human hand.
Even for the curator this was a bit of a revelation. “Most surprising [for me in doing the show] was the variety of the hand,” how the paint was applied, she said.
As she walked through the exhibition, Chaffee pointed out the blurred image in Gerhard Richter‘s Portrait of Holger Friedrich, or the hopelessly out-of-focus elements in Brcue Everett’s Gum Wrapper.
The aim is to show how flawed, blurry, out of focus, and unheroic photography can in fact be. The subject of each of the works is not its content but the photograph that bears its content and purports to be “real.”
The show is fun, but it is also serious business.
Chaffee said she hopes that people like myself who remember Photorealism for its nostalgia will see these images with new eyes.
She said she is also in touch with a new generation of artists young enough never to have seen any of these works before.
At a time when images through social media are brought to us instantly, interrupting and at times quite swamping our daily lives often with horrific and catastrophic pictures, Chaffee suggested, images like those in Still Life, big enough to be iconic but on close examination maybe closer to inaccurate and maybe even lousy, might be “newly relevant.”