April 8, 2005

America, The Beautiful

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The exhibition “Cars and Ketchup” is a collection of American Photorealist images produced in the latter half of the twentieth century. Photorealism was an international movement. The style was realistic, the subject matter mundane. The result, however, is by no means ordinary. Curated by the Cornell History of Art Majors’ Society, “Cars and Ketchup” is a collection of images of Americana in its simultaneously familiar and distanced form.

The images present in the collection are impressive not merely for their astonishing photographic quality but also — and perhaps more significantly — the subtle strength of renegotiating the meanings of what we take for granted everyday.

The exhibition includes work by Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close, Robert Cunningham, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Tim Gardner, Ralph Goings, Guy Johnson, Ron Kleeman, David Parrish, John Salt and others.

While the crisp clarity and lifelike credibility of Photorealist images gives the appearance of photographic accuracy, Photorealists take liberties in their representation of a photograph. Richard Estes’ paintings portray urban structures as spectacle, reproducing from his own photographs. One image is of a modern architectural structure of glass and steel and a noticeably older construction. The brisk, confident lines of the modern edifice have the appearance of scientific precision, but in actuality the refraction of light holds no mathematical integrity. The disconcerting redundancy of the glass building signals some kind of modern anxiety.

Photorealist representations, despite their relatively objective visual sources and realistic, photographic appearance, cannot be seen as mere imitations of nature. Artists take liberties in their duplication of reality. There is a selectivity with an emphasis on realism. Estes pays attention to the detail of light. In his other untitled work, he gives the appearance of a reality to an interior of a bus. There is attention given to the effect of light on the ceiling of the bus. Outside the windows of the bus however, Estes chooses to represent a stenciled environment, showing only silhouettes of trees, houses and cars.

Tom Blackwell illustrates the specific and peculiar visuality that results from the urban, capitalist way of living. “North Beach Leather” is an image of Nassau, Fla. through a modern store display window. On the single, flat pane of glass, we get a vision of a uniform socio-cultural subjectivity in the ambivalent postures and identical dress of the mannequins, a disturbingly ironic immobility of modern transportation in traffic, consumerist assertion of brand names as embodied by the massive Dr. Pepper truck and the loneliness of the urban individual in the reflection of a lone man on the street.

David Parrish renders an image of the city and its haste and narcissism in “Bessemer Road.” He takes advantage of a slow shutter speed to capture passage of time into one plane. As a result, we get the vivid, brilliant colors and shapes of the cityscape in addition to its coinciding velocity.

In Guy Johnson’s self-identified surrealist juxtapositions of persons and place, we get a portrait of detachment — not only from each other, but with nature as well. “Step grandfather Frederick, Grandma, Nina, Dad and Me in Fort Wayne” is a recognizable family portrait. The figures, supposedly connected by their familial ties, are caught uncomfortable and stiff, spatially at odds with each other. Johnson takes this stock image of domesticity and places it in front of a forest fire. While the painting itself is a duplication of realistic, photographic representations, the image does not simply reproduce the integrity, rather, it evokes a sentiment of alienation.

In the same manner, Audrey Flack reproduces a well-known figure but revises the meaning in her color lithograph, “Macarena.” She takes the common subject matter of Italian Renaissance Art and reproduces it through a modern commercial filter. The image is immediately recognizable as the Immaculate Mother Mary but she is represented in a way that is distinctively pop. There is a significant contrast between her grandiose crown and the warm, distressed and fleshy face.

Taking advantage of photography’s ability to capture reality, photorealism duplication and reproduction allows for an alternative view of the world; Because they look real and feel familiar, the images in this exhibit are intensely effective in making us rethink what we see everyday. “Cars and Ketchup” in its deceptively objective and subtle depiction of contemporary culture, is powerful precisely because we don’t take notice.

“Cars and Ketchup: Photorealism Images of the American Landscape” will be at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum through June 19.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Sun Staff Writer