Photorealism: Blurring Boundaries Between Reality and Imagination

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Photorealist artists
John's Diner with John's Chevelle, 2007 John Baeder,

Photorealism is artwork so realistic that the boundaries between reality and imagination blur. It makes the viewer doubt his or her eyes as it sinks in that the ‘photograph’ is in fact created using pencils, inks or paint instead of a camera. Although the term photorealism can be used broadly to describe artworks in many different media, it is also used to refer specifically to a group of paintings and painters of the American art movement that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It continues to fascinate contemporary artists, and a new generation of artwork is seeing the light of day across nations. 

Photorealist artists were reacting against Abstract Expressionism, which for many years was the predominant painting style in the United States. Whereas Abstract Expressionism favoured spontaneous application of the paint, with no premeditation or planning, Photorealist art required intricate pre-planning and careful replication of the chosen imagery. Photorealist art shares some similarities with the Pop Art movement, whose return to representational forms was also a reaction against the subconsciously-driven, process-oriented paintings of Abstract Expressionism. Both Photorealist Art and Pop Art feature recognizable imagery that is heavily based on consumer culture.

Photorealist paintings usually depict commonplace objects or scenery, and sometimes portraits. The imagery is often banal and ordinary, capturing the “everydayness” of American life. Since Photorealist art primarily developed in the United States, the artwork is often steeped in nostalgic Americana. Images such as the diner paintings by John Baeder, reflect an iconic all-American urban landscape that is nearly extinct today except in remote pockets of rural America. 

The Plaza, Richard Estes, 1991.

These paintings are often quite large, depicting objects many times larger than they actually are in real life. The paintings are usually done in oil or acrylic, either air-brushed or painted by hand. Photorealist artists generally strive to make the surface of the painting as smooth as possible, without any visible brushstrokes, in order to make the painting closely resemble a photograph.

Some of the famous Photorealist artists are Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, Chuck Close, Charles Bell, Robert Cottingham, and Don Eddy. Artists such as Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Audrey Flack, Robert Bechtle, and Chuck Close attempted to reproduce what the camera could record. Several sculptors, including the Americans Duane Hanson and John De Andrea, were also associated with this movement. Like the painters, who relied on photographs, the sculptors cast from live models and thereby achieved a simulated reality.

Like Pop artists, the Photo-realists were interested in breaking down hierarchies of appropriate subject matter by including everyday scenes of commercial life—cars, shops, and signage, for example. Also like them, the Photo-realists drew from advertising and commercial imagery. The Photo-realists’ use of an industrial or mechanical technique such as photography as the foundation for their work in order to create a detached and impersonal effect also had an affinity with both Pop and Minimalism. Yet many saw Photo-realism’s revival of illusionism as a challenge to the pared-down Minimalist aesthetic, and many perceived the movement as an attack on the important gains that had been made by modern abstract painting.

Amsterdam Diner, Ralph Goings, 1980.

The 1960s brought the development of Audrey Flack as a pioneer of Photo-realism. She became one of the first painters at the Art Students League to use photographs as the foundation of her work. Her innovative method led to paintings such as Kennedy Motorcade, November 22, 1963 (1964), which depicts a scene from the assassination of U.S. Pres. John F. Kennedy. It was during that period that the artist also began to fine-tune her photographic method and her subject matter. In addition to works with socio-political commentary, such as her painting of the Kennedy assassination, she also began to paint mundane objects such as perfume bottles or items of makeup, which she featured as a way to question the construction of femininity, thus updating the 17th-century theme of vanitas and reminding viewers of the fleeting nature of material things.

Photorealists typically projected a photographed image onto a canvas and then used an airbrush to reproduce the effect of a photo printed on glossy paper. Richard Estes claimed that the idea of the painting was involved primarily with the photograph and that the painting was just the technique of finishing it up. He chose to disguise the painterliness of his New York street scenes with the look of photography. 

Crossing Arkansas, Robert Bechtle, 1992

Ralph Goings and Robert Bechtle also sought to capture a crisp veneer by using an airbrush technique in their many images of the pervasive American car culture. Chuck Close systematically transformed photographs of his friends into giant frontal portraits, initially in black-and-white and then in colour beginning in 1970. He first put down a light pencil grid for scaling up the photograph and then sketched in the image with the airbrush; he finished the image by painting in the details.

Despite a lifelong interest in art, Charles Bell never received any formal art training. His primary subject matter was vintage toys, pinball machines, gumball machines, and dolls and action figures. By recreating Classical myths like the Judgement of Paris with action figures, Bell sought to bring pictorial majesty and wonder to the mundane. Bell’s work, created in his New York loft studio on West Broadway, is noted not only for the glass-like surface of his works, done largely in oil, but also for their significant scale.

Photorealists typically projected a photographed image onto a canvas and then used an airbrush to reproduce the effect of a photo printed on glossy paper. Richard Estes claimed that the idea of the painting was involved primarily with the photograph and that the painting was just the technique of finishing it up.

Photorealism has travelled to countries outside America today, to Africa, Europe and other continents. Notable artists include Oscar Okonu, David Kassan, Elizabeth Patterson, David Eichenberg, Jeremy Geddes and Bill Fink amongst others.

Nigeria has become a hotbed of photorealistic art over the last few years, and one notable practitioner is Oscar Okonu. He creates his large-scale photorealistic images using only a ball-point pen on paper, with each work taking him over one hundred hours to complete.

David Kassan’s life-size photorealistic paintings can take him anywhere between two months and two years to complete; he says that he doesn’t simply try to replicate his subjects, rather he tries to capture their essence and imbue them with their own voice. He’s currently working on a project painting portraits of Holocaust survivors that will be exhibited along with their written testimonies and short films.

Perfect Vacuum, Jeremy Geddes, 2011

Elizabeth Patterson’s artistic career was put on hold in 1984 after a severe injury left her without use of her drawing hand. Returning to art 15 years later, she hit upon her defining style: urban scenes as viewed from behind a car windscreen in the rain, drawn using coloured pencil, graphite and a touch of solvent, which manage to be both impressionistic and photorealistic in their execution.

David J Eichenberg, another amazing Photorealist says this about his subjects, “Plain and simply, I look at everyone around me. I look for the beauty in the people I see and encounter. I am especially interested in people who wear themselves on the outside.”

Images courtesy: Wikipedia & Flickr

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