Virtual Reality

The Yale University Art Gallery isn’t the sort of place you expect to find a pregnant woman in nothing but her underwear. But there she is, on a chair against a wall, just past the gallery’s Herb and Dorothy Vogel exhibition.

The woman isn’t real, but you can be forgiven for being fooled. Her blonde hair parts neatly down the center, some of it obscuring her face. Her hands rest lightly on crossed legs, and there’s what looks like a bit of dirt on her toes. Her skin is textured, and unlike your standard shopping-mall mannequin, it’s realistically shaded—darker on the tops, lighter on the undersides. She sits attentively, though slouched slightly to one side, as if she has grown weary waiting for someone.

This is Lissa Pregnant (1973), a sculpture by John DeAndrea. Along with two equally startling pieces by Duane Hanson, Lissa Pregnant represents the sculptural contingent of the Photorealism movement that is the focus of YUAG’s ongoing Still Life: 1970s Photorealism exhibition.

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The Photorealism movement centered around painting, though, which is why paintings take up the lion’s share of the exhibit space. Paintings of street scenes, like John Baeder’s Stardust Motel (1977), a bold, crisp image of street-side signs for hotels and gas stations, fill the walls, giving viewers clear-eyed glimpses of decades-past scenes and objects. Most of the artists worked directly from photographs, and as curator Cathleen Chaffee notes in her gallery essay, they reproduced them faithfully, even when the snapshots they chose were poorly framed or lit. “Recreating the mistakes that are endemic to photography,” she notes, “seemed to liberate these artists from the compositional tropes of painting.”

Although the painters and sculptors of Still Life can all be connected to the same movement, their work shows a surprising range of style. Ben Schonzeit’s Tangerine Sugar (1972), for example, feels almost abstract: stand too close, and the image hesitates to resolve itself into two tangerine halves, laid on top of what looks like newsprint. Others, like Tom Blackwell’s Triple Carburetor GTO Candy Apple Blue (1971), feel distorted. Because it’s an enormous painting, each point blown up in size, the carburetor in the image looks almost as if it’s underwater: the reflective parts gleam in splotches of white.

Still others appear immediately, shockingly true-to-life. Were it not explicitly part of a Photorealism exhibition, you might think Richard McLean’s Draft with Orange Doors (1976) is actually a photograph—the lines of the white horse and the doors it stands in front of are that precise, the shading that accurate. And then there’s Ben Schonzeit’s Giummo (1973), an enormous, 7-foot-square portrait of a man wearing aviator-style glasses. The detail in Giummo is so precise that each individual hair of his stubble is discernible, as are his pores and wrinkles; the resultant texture is somehow both beautiful and grotesque.

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Looking at these paintings, one might be tempted to ask why, in their attempt to render things faithfully, the artists didn’t just go with photography. But as Chaffee points out, Photorealists “were working to capture something of the nature of their existence, and to stop time, showing the world as they saw it.” A snapshot, rendered closely, might transcend the banal and represent some quiet truth.

What’s more, each artist’s style focuses your eye on something slightly different, something you might overlook while looking at a photograph: a missing letter in a sign, or the shadow falling across a man’s face. This is especially true in Bruce Everett’s Gum Wrapper (1971-2), which transforms a piece of trash into an enthralling image. From afar, the 9-foot long gum wrapper looks shiny and metallic; step closer and you’ll see that the painting is entirely matte. Swirls of blue and white and grey worked carefully into the image achieve this impressive illusion.

If you can appreciate the genius in this painting of a valueless object, you can come away from 1970s Photorealism with something valuable indeed: a new fascination with the everyday.

Still Life: 1970s Photorealism at Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm. On view through Sunday, March 9, 2014.
(203) 432-0600

Written by Elizabeth Weinberg. Images courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

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