Jean Robertson: "You take a lot of photographs, then paint from photographs. Why paint a painting instead of just showing the photograph?"
Kevin Wolff: "There is always a choice between taking a photograph and doing a painting. I love photography. I have seriously made photographs. But, I have never seen a photograph that is for me as satisfying as looking at a painting. I have never felt like the top of my head was coming off when I’ve looked at a photograph. Never."
New Art Examiner interview, November 1998
"Painting Pictures" presents fourteen paintings on canvas, aluminum, wood, and paper that consciously employ photographs as their subjects in the literal, often labor-intensive manner of Photorealism. The range of intentions, procedures, and effects employed by the artists in this exhibition would have been unlikely in 1970 when this term was first used to name the work of painters Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle and others.1 Among the movement’s distinguishing features was an often excruciating faithfulness to anonymous color snapshots of sunlit urban scenes, all-American automobiles, diners, and consumer goods. Painstakingly rendered in a manner that generally eliminated any trace of the hand, many of the resulting, typically large-scale works generated virtuoso contradictions of medium and method most noticeable when the paintings were reproduced as color plates in magazines and catalogues.
Considered within the tradition of academic realisms rendered from life, prior to the 1960s, the practice of basing paintings directly on photographs had traditionally been disparaged as an aesthetic shortcut rather than a creative or critical possibility. Following the innovations of pop, minimalism, and conceptualism, however, photorealism, at its best, became a celebration of what critic Hal Foster has called "the sex appeal of the commodity sign."2 At its worst, it was deplored as a conservative, even nostalgic form of pop driven by a numbing technique sometimes masquerading as process.
Popular with general audiences, in part, because of its hand-wrought illusionism and the inherent legibility and neutrality of the source photographs, the genre has quietly persisted. However, in the last five years or so the word photorealist has been difficult to suppress as an effective term to describe the work of numerous progressive painters, mostly working in New York, Los Angeles, and London.3 Perhaps spurred by the current revival of seventies culture—not to mention the elasticity of photography and a new appetite for crafted painting—the practice has matured to encompass territories far outside its original purview. Although in no way comprehensive, "Painting Pictures" serves as an occasion to consider the current impact of photography on painting, as well as way to mark critical shifts in both practices over the past thirty years.4
Many of the works in the show demonstrate photography’s new role as a highly adaptable source of both verisimilitude and abstraction in the digital age. While most of the artists included invest the photographs they use with a certain authority, each recognize their source photos, whether found or taken, as points of departure toward a more complete pictorial and material presence the photos themselves could never supply. Several artists use pictures to enact a symbolic, tactile contact with the past, or as a method of mitigating personal loss. In many cases, the physical transformation from print to paint releases ideological and psychological content only dormant in the original images. Whether referencing portraiture, landscape, or still life, the works in the exhibition demonstrate the lessons of 1980s appropriation, the resurgence of figuration, and a belief in the cultural primacy of painting despite the overwhelming ubiquity of photography in a mass media, that has become, for many, a new form of reality. With this ubiquity has also come an expanded photo-literacy that serves these painters well, providing each with an expanded license to explore the tension between photography’s mechanical confirmation of appearances and painting’s slower, more organic manipulation of them.
Since 1993 MATTHEW ANTEZZO has been basing his large-scale, grisaille paintings on photographs documenting performances and installations from the late 1960s and early ‘70s by artists such as Michael Asher, Robert Barry, Nancy Holt, Allan Kaprow, and Robert Smithson. The use of the camera by these artists (decidedly non-painters) to record and subsequently present their projects, contributed to the erosion of photography’s often fussy, disciplined specificity exemplified by the darkroom. When considering which photographs to render into paintings, Antezzo has made it a point to select works such as Maggie Lowe’s Explosion (the detonation of a pair of Hostess "Snoballs) whose existence seems entirely dependent on its documentation having been published in an art magazine. In this case, the photograph was published in Art in America, January-February 1971, also the title of Antezzo’s work.5 While Antezzo’s translation of Lowe’s convention-challenging performance into a monumental canvas is not without its irony, his work strives to rescue Lowe’s ephemeral gesture from a certain cultural amnesia. By always incorporating the original captions of the photos as published, Antezzo also restores their mediated contexts. His copying, unlike that of Sherry Levine’s, for example, can be read as an act of affection, if not for Lowe’s performance in particular, for the epoch of radical experimentation for which it is emblematic.
Photographs from 1960s and ‘70s publications also provide the sources for the recent paintings of RICHARD PHILLIPS. These large-scale canvases (several of which were included in 1997 Whitney Biennial) typically depict the close-cropped faces of fashion models rendered at billboard scale and in a manner that equates the sensuality of oil paint on linen with the veneer of cosmetic beauty. In Transfixed, the model’s head is enveloped in an aqueous shadow of deep purple, pierced by a tightly focused spotlight. Like a film projected onto the blank face of a mannequin, the illuminated vignette transforms her features into a dazed, vacuous mask.
Phillips’ indulgence in the surface of painting as analog for the superficial allure perpetrated by the fashion industry becomes the target of works by MARILYN MINTER. Two recent enamel paintings on aluminum eschew her signature Abstract Expressionist style drips in an effort to exploit the subliminal possibilities of what she recently referred to as "photo-shop realism."6 Based on magazine images she scans into a computer, digitally alters, and then transcribes into shiny paintings on metal panels, often applying the enamel with her own fingertips, works such as Finger Toes Study expose the repulsion that can lie beneath the artifice of glamour. In this tightly cropped collage, Minter vertically splices a hyperreal close-up of a glossy fingernail to a similarly cropped detail of a glittered toenail. The elision monstrously deforms the model’s hand while directing our attention to the distractions of commercial beauty. In Downy, Minter’s cropping and rescaling of the source photo (a peachfuzzed cleft above mounds of impossibly red lips) opens up a polymorphous, gender-bending party of interpretive possibilities.
JUDIE BAMBER employs her technical virtuosity to both ideological and personal ends. Her Untitled #1 is a life sized, tightly cropped close-up of female genitalia. Scrupulously painted in oil on a piece of wood 6" x 1 3/4" x 2", the work has an object-like (even phallic) presence that reverses Freudian readings of female lack. The painting’s extended sense of time and ability to sustain focused looking transcend the limits of camera vision, suggesting, among other references, details from 15-century Dutch floral paintings.Presented in the gallery, where it requires a public but intimate one-on-one encounter, the painting subverts taboos in viewers, female and male, gay and straight. Bamber is also represented by two 10" x 14" watercolors (from a series of seven) of meticulously rendered photographs of her father who died as a young man while she was still a child. A sun struck black and white beach portrait from 1966 and a flash-filled side-view of her father typing, based on a photo taken three years later and printed after his death, stubbornly record every nuance of the faded, original prints. Despite their fidelity to the snapshots, Bamber’s watercolors possess an elusive clumsiness that sidesteps sentimentality while subtly asserting both her presence and her longing "for something she knows she cannot have."7
MARY MURPHY has also cultivated a highly manual approach to transcribing family photographs into psychologically charged paintings. Recognized in Philadelphia for her abstract paintings of interwoven, painted bands, in recent years Murphy has shifted her fascination with the grid as image to the grid as an instrument of image-making. Mom, Dad, Maureen and Me transcribes a detail of a group portrait into a mosaic of 1200 one-inch square gray tones, each loosely brushed and smudged into the next over the course of a single session in the studio. Murphy’s softened grid suggests the pixelated masks worn to protect the privacy of those captured on news videotapes. In the context of her source photo, however, the blurred edges and distortion of detail paradoxically accentuate individual facial features while alluding to the struggle of preserving identity within the often unspoken and repressive structures of the family. Murphy’s process also yields unexpected iconography. The mysterious black cross floating in the bottom half of the canvas suggests those applied to Catholics on ash Wednesday and might be read as an inadvertent symbol of mortality.8
The realistic depiction of photography’s sometimes blurry and unfocused passages distinguishes a pair of puzzle pictures by Indianapolis based artist KEVIN WOLFF. The two paintings in the exhibition relate directly to a larger series of paintings of arms and their reflections exhibited in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. In Wall, False Hole, Mirror (1994), Wolff depicts a photograph he took of a circle of inked paper affixed to a mirror. Photographed out of focus, this fake aperture floats before the photo of a day-lit interior (beyond the mirror) into which a real hole (appearing like a white oval above the painted window) has been cut. Wolff’s attention to the unfocused areas of the original photograph becomes a way to traverse the deep space of painting without surrendering its surface tension. With all its apertures, actual and false, his painting also suggests the structure of a camera. Mourning Picture represents a clipping of two young men from a Spanish rock magazine attached to another mirror tilted at an angle beyond which an inverted bouquet of roses hangs.
One of the men, distorted by foreshortening, directs his eyes at the other, whose head has been cut out in a flower-shaped flap that hinges forward, parallel to the picture plane, his face and the scalloped edges that frame it sharply in focus.
The play of gazes, reflections, and multiple methods of representing space in both paintings suggest the baroque reflexivity of Valazquez’ Las Meninas, a work that has often been offered as a paradigm of Photorealist practice.9
This theme of disorienting, mirrored views and the tension between deep space and the picture plane appear again in PAUL WINSTANLEY’s Underpass /Fragment(s), a pair of modestly sized canvases representing details of the opposed walls of an underground passageway emblazoned with graffiti. The anonymous, air-brush-like surfaces of Winstanley’s canvases, rendered in a spectrum of dry grays and whites, mimic the texture of the spray paint they depict and make it difficult to know whether it is the walkway walls or the canvas itself that has been tagged. Whatever material illusionism the canvases affect, however, is undercut by the blinding glare bouncing off of the angled tile surfaces we know are shiny, but filthy. This dazzling glow (a signature of Winstanley’s later images of enclosed waiting rooms) collapses the differences between the substance of white paint, both that on the canvas and that represented, with the mysterious light radiating from the far end of walkway. Occluded by the white borders that frame each canvas, the source of the glow is suspended in the space between the two paintings. Winstanley transforms his original photos into meditations on the confounding abstractions of painted illumination while pointing to the possibility of recognizing the infinite in the quotidian
Underpass /Fragment(s) recalls the prevalent Photorealist theme of the urban exteriors glutted with commercial signage. Mobil and Glendale Boulevard, two L.A. streetscapes by PETER CAIN (1959-1997) might evoke the shop fronts of Richard Estes were it not for Cain’s broader brushwork and eerie erasure of type and logos from these views of a gas station and convenience store.10 Devoid of the letters and numbers that they would normally support, the blank display panels and banners seem haunted with a sense of expectation. Because they do not ask us to read, they permit us to see, perhaps for the first time, the idealized, generic world of two-dimensional forms and floating color that constitute these stage sets of corporate display. Cain’s rendering of a lime green lozenge suspended on a pole, for example, or a set of monochrome posters in ochre, grey and orange, seems to transform everything in sight, even the sky, into planes of fresh plastic. The red circle at the dead center of Mobil, ordinarily a field for the company’s Pegasus logo, looks like a traffic light that will never change. Vacant of figures, the paintings nevertheless manage to evoke those of Edward Hopper as well as Hans Hoffman, or Mondrian for that matter. Despite the almost festive abstraction, the specific positions of waving flags and sharp versus blurry contours maintain a tight grip on photographic veracity. This sense of visual truth invests scenes with an unexpected melancholy.
As so do many others in the exhibition, Cain’s pictures suggest the possibilities of new and probing connections between painting and contemporary life, connections that we have come to anticipate more from cameras than from canvases. In the loose and open photorealisms presented in this exhibition, the practice of basing paintings on photographs not only offers a way of interpreting the shared realities offered by photography, but of extending the path of painting as well.
Richard Torchia, February 1999
1 The dialogue between painting and photography is as old as the camera obscura. Canalleto, among other masters, based his canvases on tracings of projections made with the instrument. Although painters since Delacroix have been employing photographic prints as sources for their canvases, it was not until the early- to mid-1960s, when John Baldessari, Jon Clem Clark, Richard Hamilton, Malcolm Morely, Gerhard Richter, and James Rosenquist pioneered the verbatim transcription of photographic imagery by hand onto to the surface of the canvas. "Photorealism," as a recognized movement, is generally considered along with other "super-" and "hyper-" realisms in both painting and sculpture that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the work of Don Eddy, Ralph Goings, Duane Hanson, Joseph de Andrea, John Salt, and others. Although considered a veteran of the genre, Chuck Close objects to being aligned with the movement because it misrepresents his concern for technique. In 1972, works by many Photorealists were included in Dokumenta 5.
2 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p.142.
3 A short list of other contemporary artists currently recognized for their work in this mode include Amy Adler, Patrick Faulhauber, Lawrence Gipe, Salomon Huerta, Jeff Koons, Matvey Levenstien, Damian Loeb, Richard Patterson, Chris Pfister, and Peter Waite, among others.
4 Jeff Koons’ ink-jet photographs on canvas made in the late 1980s and ‘90s provide just one example of how both mediums have been become increasingly less "discipline specific."
5 The original photodocumentation illustrates an article by Jane Livingston entitled "MS. L.A. 3 Women in the City of Angels," about Lowe, Alexis Smith, and Margaret Wilson.
6 Marilyn Minter, in conversation with the author, December 1998.
7 Judie Bamber, in conversation with the author, January 1999.
8 Murphy’s source photograph, a portrait honor``ing the 50th wedding anniversary of her parents in 1993, was the last picture of her family taken together. Her brother died six months later followed by the death of her father.
9 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, p 142. (Coincidentally, Wolff stated in January 1999 that after he had finished Mourning Picture, he realized that it was "his Las Meninas").
10 Cain was included in both the 1993 and 1995 Whitney Biennials. His now signature images of truncated cars--based on his photocollages--earned him a cult following before his untimely death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1997 at the age of 37. The two paintings included in this exhibition were among the last four he completed.