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Reality Bites: Realism in Contemporary Art
May 4-June 23, 1996
May 4-June 23, 1996
Reality Bites: Realism in Contemporary Art
Bo Bartlett
So Far , 1995
oil paint on linen
84 x 120 inches
Courtesy of the artist and John Berggruen Gallery
The nature of a work of art is to be not a part,
nor yet a copy of the real world
(as we commonly understand that phrase),
but a world in itself, independent, complete, autonomous.
And to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws,
and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions
which belong to you in the other world of reality. 1

Painting, which had until recently been considered "dead" or at least dying, is flourishing. A large number of new works evidence a conscious return to realism, with artists often using old masters' techniques to give their work greater accessibility and familiarity. After half a century of abstraction, during which figuration was considered reactionary, this reversion to academic style and traditions seems a defiant gesture. By using familiar idioms and motifs to compose these paintings, the artists dramatically evince that what was once orthodoxy but is now a form of rebellion: figuration is not included in these works for its own sake, but as a means of provocation. The time and patience necessary to skillfully model three-dimensional objects on a flat canvas are explicitly transgressive reactions against the quick flash/freeze of photography or the "cut and paste" ability of computer-generated art. The resultant paintings are as much about the act of seeing as about what is being seen. 2

Although the ensuing works give0lie to the belief that traditional skills have been forgotten, much of the new realism-based painting is not merely objective representation. As if to redress its former collusion in promoting the superiority of Western cultural traditions, painting has returned from "exile" with a decidedly self-critical manner. As Thomas McEvilley observes, "the figure brought social concerns back into the practice of painting." 3The underlying tension and alienation evident in much of this new work expresses misgivings and anxiety about being human in the late 20th century. It also signifies a reevaluation and recognition that history is far more ambiguous and complex than had formerly been taught. History is now acknowledged as being pluralistic and cyclical and is being actively rewritten to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Its use in painting serves as an injunction to act upon, rather than merely acknowledge, ethical concerns that remain prevalent in contemporary life.

A key feature of the new realism in painting is that the viewer no longer assumes a passive role. Instead, contemporary realist painting demands an active viewer, posed for critical action. In recognizing and identifying with what is represented on the canvas, the postmodernist viewer in turn becomes aware, even self-conscious, about his or her position in the world. However, although these works establish grounds for critical action by representing assorted societal ills, the paintings offer no easy solutions0or proselytizing. 4
This recent alteration in the viewer's role has implications for both our understanding of the nature of art and the nature of looking at art in the late 20th century. Before modernism, significant works of art often functioned as escapism by dramatizing incidents in history that glorified the participants and conveyed some exemplary missive to viewers. A hundred years ago, French author Gustave Flaubert decried, "Life is so horrible that one can only bear it by avoiding it. And that can be done by living in the world of art." 5Western art, at least as written and taught by art historians, critics, and museum curators, followed a social Darwinist linear evolution with each major art style acting as a reaction to or commentary on what came before. The viewer's role was as passive receiver of the works' unequivocal moral instructions.

For most of the 20th century, abstract art was considered the necessary and inevitable culmination of art history. As modernism evolved through the century, recognizable content disappeared, and painting's role became to suggest spiritual states rather than to describe or imitate optical reality. Artists concentrated on the formal qualities of the medium and on self-expression, with the viewer's role that of passive appreciator. Often modernist art was granted the status of holy relic and invested with mysterious, cryptic powers, its proper interpretation available only to a small, elitist group of art insiders.

Pop art in the 1960s marked a temporary return of realism, in which recognizable items from consumer culture became the subject matter for major paintings. Reflecting the vast increase in modern communication, Pop art opened the art world, breaking down distinctions between "high" and "popular" culture. After a few years, however, the mainstream of contemporary art in the United States quickly moved away from painting with new movements such as minimalism, which emphasized the formal materials that made up the works to the exclusion of subject matter, and conceptualism, which dispensed altogether with the notion of art as physical object. For the next decade, art was valued for its separateness from reality; it was considered independent of all but the most self-referential context. To understand and experience the power of this work, the viewer had to be indoctrinated into the mysterious, exclusive world of structuralist and feminist art theory. 6

Since the 1980s, as the general public lost interest in art that had no meaning or impact on their daily lives, art began to regionalize, incorporating global traditions and formerly ignored or marginalized aesthetics, concerns, and subject matter. Many artists, associating the medium of painting with the past, turned instead to new technologies to create their work. The result was an end-of-the-millennium inventorying of the century's critical insights and a collapsing of any notion of a singular history of art.
Recently, after a several-decade-long hiatus, a growing number of artists have returned to painting as a medium, proving the lasting power and satisfaction still gained by seeing the results of controlling viscous pigments on a two-dimensional surface. In addition to a rejection of abstraction, a great deal of the most interesting new work is characterized by an "edge," an ironic, unsparing vision that feels very new and echoes the bitingly real character of our time. This is evident in the subject matter, content, and handling of the paintings in the current exhibition. These paintings evidence no underlying idealism, but are highly complex, with no clear reading or single message.
This tendency is curiously echoed throughout contemporary culture (film, literature, popular music, and the visual arts) which increasingly focuses on presenting provocative disturbances from everyday life in a dispassionate way. Today's hit songs convey a cynicism, black humor, and ambiguity that seem unprecedented except when exploring other prevalent forms of contemporary culture and entertainment:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn't it ironic...
It's like rain on your wedding day
A free ride when you already paid
Good advice that you just can't take
Who would'a figures
"Ironic" sung by Alanis Morissette 7
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home...
Just trying to make His way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to Heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone
Except for the Pope maybe in Rome...
"One of Us" sung by Joan Osborne 8

Discussing Pulp Fiction , a San Francisco psychiatrist theorized that the film's enormous popularity is due to its appropriateness in speaking to the prevalent mood of the times: "The old story in which evil is evil and good is good and in which good eventually conquers all just doesn't seem to be relevant to life as it's being lived." There has been a marked emergence of "downbeat" films, whose grim, unsettled endings would have frightened audiences a few years ago but whose current renown indicates that audiences are saying, "Enough with unrealistic endings-give us some realism. ... At least [such films] don't feel dishonest." 9Apparently Hollywood's traditional rose-colored glasses are no longer appropriate.

In fact, a review of contemporary culture seems like an formidable instruction in alienation. The English magazine Granta recently devoted two issues to publishing what its editors describe as "dirty realism"-a new form of American fiction which emphasizes the "belly-side" of contemporary life. Unlike traditional literature, this new writing is not heroic, not devoted to making large historical statements but instead concentrates0on detailing the nuances and little disturbances in daily life: "These are strange stories: unadorned, unfinished, low-rent tragedies about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances ... drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of modern consumerism." 10

Where did this tendency come from? How is it manifest, and how does it alter our understanding of the nature of painting and our reaction to and interaction with much recent work? Whatever its subject matter or style, a painting exists in real time and space as an object. As Donald Kuspit succinctly announced, "what is called an art object is an object in the world." 11 However this fact leads to one of the most essential yet contradictory components of art's power: it both is, and is not, a representation of reality in addition to whatever is depicted on its surface. The picture is flat and usually contained within a frame. Reality is three-dimensional and exists in the fullness of time and space, yet the painting itself has a "reality" all its own. This concept is clearly conveyed in René Magritte's famous painting of a pipe that is inscribed, in French, "this is not a pipe." The painting is not a pipe; it is a two-dimensional representation, and yet it exists on its own, as an object to be hung, collected, and preserved.

Beyond its physicality, a further complication is added to paintings when they include realistic or figurative representations in their composition. All art work is a form of quotation in the sense that all communication operates via agreed-upon, habitual codes of recognition shared between senders and receivers of information. To quote McEvilley, "In the beginning was the Word-and since then there's been quotation." Quotational painting, even when wholly realistic, is about more than meets the eye, and appeals to both the eye and the mind. "When an artist quotes a familiar icon from the past in a clearly contemporary work, we sense semiotically the difference between the Then and the Now of the work and at the same time the relationship between them." 12 If a painting represents a proposition about the nature of reality that a particular viewer does not agree with, the viewer in question tends to dismiss not the reality, but the work of art. This is why a work of art may infuriate or threaten people (particularly if it proposes a reality that is different from the one with which we are comfortable), even though we are aware it is not "real." In her book Art Objects , Jeannette Winterson observes,

When you say "this work has nothing to do with me," when you say "this work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/elitist, etc." you may be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you may be wrong because the world falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting ... Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the "I" that we are. 13

Art is always a question of individual interpretation, and it takes a viewer to "complete" the work, bringing with him or her all the conditioning, views, and acculturation that have gone into their being up to the point of impact with the art work. As Salmon Rusdie acknowledges, "People do not perceive things whole, we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions ... Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries." 14 As such, art becomes a place to sort out the feelings we have for the reality for which it is substituting. At the bottom of all viewing is a subjective preference, "To like, to find important, at this time and in such-and-such a situation: this is the essence of the critical act."

Finally, to further complicate the issue, an extremely important, although not often acknowledged characteristic of all works of art is that art is virtual , in the contemporary sense of experienced as though real, but not real. The imagery we see on a canvas can look real and conjure up real emotions and reactions, but it is an illusion. Because of painting's qualities of mimesis or likeness, we have culturally agreed upon conventions (that vary from culture to culture) of what McEvilley calls "picture reading": we see the world the way we have been habitually conditioned to in the past. 15 The virtuality of art provides an intense experience of reality while not actually belonging to that reality. A painting is a symbolic rendering: if a picture is OF something, it cannot at the same time BE it. Wendy Steiner has theorized that the virtuality in art is essential in that it enables us to reconsider our understanding of the world but never lose literal control: no matter how we experience a work of art, we can always walk away-not often the case in real time and space. 16 Because an image is not real and can be left, like a game, we can play out and acknowledge our feelings and reactions to painted subjects and situations without having to actually live through them. In this way, art allows a viewer to exercise control over a substitute for real life.

It is contemporary art's virtual, complex, and contradictory nature that grants it its power and significance. One of the primary purposes of art is to sharpen and complicate our views of ourselves and the world in which we live, to offer alternatives to simplistic answers, and "reveal the inadequacy of unquestioned orthodoxies." 17 Meaningful works of art open our minds rather than closing them, but for many people, complexity and ambiguity are threatening. Experiencing art helps us entertain different possibilities (whether terrifying, enriching, or disturbing), and in so doing, it allows each of us, as individuals, to discover what we care about and like, and how we react to others who might feel the same way, or differently. As Wendy Steiner notes in her recent book, The Scandal of Pleasure , art allows us "to understand without assenting, to go over to the other side and still stay at home, to be violated and still in control. ... It may allow us, in our timid fashion, to indulge in a certain taste for the sublime." 18 Opening oneself up to contradictions and new situations is risky. It takes both candor and personal strength to acknowledge, even to ourselves, how we see and interpret the world, just as it takes courage and generosity to open ourselves up to the potentially opposing or different interpretations of other people. Jeannette Winterson's recent comment on the parallels between art and falling in love suggests an interesting reading for the Vincent Desiderio painting "Romance and Reunion" (plate XXX) stating:

Falling in love challenges the reality to which we lay claim. Part of the pleasure of love and part of its terror is the world turned upside down. We want and we don't want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new. ... Mostly we just work hard at taming our aesthetic environment. We already have tamed our physical environment. And are we happy with all this tameness? 19

It is the complexity and ambiguity of real life as lived that most of the artists in Reality Bites are depicting. Pablo Picasso once stated that his lifelong ambition was to paint like a child. By that he did not mean painting innocent subject matter and rejecting any representations of pain, sex, or death; but instead that he wanted to create work that startles us into seeing the world from a fresh and new perspective. Through observing many differing works of art, we are able to experience new worlds in which the rules and habits by which we usually live are temporarily suspended, but where we remain capable of reflection and judgment. As a result, we often "see the world anew," with heightened awareness of the possibilities and choices that define us. A painting in the current exhibition by Catherine Murphy serves as a metaphor for this process. Like the artist, we as viewers stand behind a papaya-orange chiffon curtain looking out onto a street. If we linger and look closely, gradually we can distinguish shapes through the (virtual) translucent fabric and realize that we are overlooking a scene in which two cars have apparently collided. One person lies on the ground nearby, another is bending forward as if to look. How we interpret this vague but highly realistic image varies according to what we as individuals bring to the experience of looking at the painting in ter}s of past experience, culture, wishes, beliefs, fears, etc. Works of art are like translucent curtains through which we can gaze and consider variations of others' interpretations of life.

Life is contradictory and our role ambiguous. For art to be meaningful today, it has to reflect this reality. Thomas McEvilley recently generated a tripartite conception of art that he expects will carry us into the next century: the aesthetic, the cognitive, and the ethical. With all the visual choices available, art first has to seduce our eye into extended viewing in order to be effective. As Dave Hickey so cogently recognizes, "images that [are] not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder [beg] the questions of their efficacy and [doom] themselves to inconsequence." 20 It is a tribute to the work when its beauty, handling, and subject engage our interest enough to make us linger in spite of our empirical knowledge that it is just a two-dimensional object hanging on the wall. Beyond appearances, works of art make us think and consider our place in the world, and can have profound social and political ramifications. Through experiencing the many individual forms of interpreting the world engendered in this and other exhibitions, we can grow more tolerant and understanding of ourselves and of each other. "Art is a realm of thought experiments that quicken, sharpen and sweeten our being in the world." 21

-Barbara J. Bloemink

  1. Oxford Lectures on Poetry: Professor Bradley: 1901. Epigraph to Jeannette Winterson, Art & Lies: a piece for 3 voices and a Bawd (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).
  2. See Edward Lucie-Smith, Art Today (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995)
  3. Thomas McEvilley, The Exile's Return: Toward a redefinition of painting for the postmodern era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 7)
  4. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, "Modernity and Modernism Reconsidered," Modernism in Dispute: Art since the forties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 250).
  5. Quoted in Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1991, and Susan Lubowsky, Heroic Painting exhibition catalogue, North Carolina: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1996,13)
  6. From the mid-1960s onward, a few artists in Italy (with the Pittura Colta Movement), Germany, and the United States reintroduced figuration into their works. Because of the continuing emphasis on the artists' subjectivity, stylistically much of this work (by artists such as Leon Golub, Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino, Aselem Kiefer, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Susan Rothenberg, and others) became known as neo-expressionist. However, abstraction remained the norm for avant-garde art. One exception to this is Gerhard Richter, the German artist who, over the last thirty years, has continually moved between the figurative and abstract in his painting. Richter's 1988 suite of paintings of the Baader-Meinhof group, titled 18 October, 1977, marked an end to the generally accepted prohibition on paintings to represent modern history. See Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, "The State of Painting," Modernism in Dispute: Art since the forties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 233 and 252)
  7. Alanis Morissette, "Ironic," on Jagged Little Pill , Maverick Records, 1995.
  8. Joan Osborne, "One of Us" on Relish , CD from PolyGram Records Inc. 1995. Lyrics written by Eric Bazilian.
  9. There have been any number of such articles in recent newspapers, including The Kansas City Star , March 17, 1996, section I-4 and January 7, 1996, section I-5.
  10. Granta , "Dirty Realism: New Writing from America" (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983, reprinted 1990, 4).
  11. Donald Kuspit, The New Subjectivism: art in the 1980s (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988, 539)
  12. Thomas McEvilley Art & Otherness: Crisis in cultural identity (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 1992, 99-100)
  13. Winterson, Art Objects: essays on ecstasy & effrontery (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995).
  14. Salmon Rusdie, Imaginary Homeland: Essays and Criticism (London: Granta, 1992,12).
  15. McEvilley, The Exile's Return , 88-91.
  16. Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an age of fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 211). In a recent issue of The Kansas City Star , USA Today's foreign editor Johanna Neuman is quoted as stating that "Pictures don't make policy." She notes that as emotionally powerful as images of war on television may be, they have little impact on how America conducts foreign policy. "The pictures turned up the pressure, but they could not provoke action." The Kansas City Star , Sunday, March 17, 1996, section I-5.
  17. Steiner, 5.
  18. Steiner, 212.
  19. Winterson Art Objects.
  20. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four essays on beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993).
  21. Steiner, 8