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Contemporary Realist Art

at Streeterville Gallery, through August 25

By Geoffrey Bent

Critical focus might lead one to believe that all artists today are conceptualists, scouring the nation's junkyards for detritus and hoping to initiate yet another revolution in art: the taste for upheaval in contemporary art can make a banana republic seem as stolid as Switzerland. Realistic rendering in art, at least of the sort that isn't extreme enough to warrant an -ism, has earned a bad name in these circles, and some of this ill repute is deserved. Realism is often the refuge of the unimaginative, the ultimate destination for artists with lots of technique and no way to use it. Their ambition is to be human Xerox machines, as good as any Instamatic camera. Technique alone rarely has anything to say beyond "I know how to paint"; a realistic approach, however, can say much more.

A good sampling of what contemporary realists are doing can be found at the just-opened Streeterville Gallery, a new presence in an old space. The six painters in the exhibition studied together at the Kansas City Art Institute, and three live above the gallery. Their shared origins and continuing community give the show an unusual focus: different painters often render the same subject using similar techniques, allowing the viewer to savor their differences. Revealing some preoccupation with identity, self-portraits vie with portraits of the artists by others in the show. Two of the landscapes show views from the gallery itself and are mounted so that the spectator can compare them with the views. In an odd way, this juxtaposition calls into question the whole notion of realism: on its own a work of this kind might seem to replicate nature, but contrasting the painting with its subject makes the work less "real," more an interpretive act.

One element that unites this group is the assumption that realism is a means, not an end. And by pruning realism of its -ism, one uncovers a means of surprising transparency. Hyperrealists call attention to their surfaces and rarely get beyond them; by replicating what the eye perceives more matter-of-factly, however, the artist supplies composition and characterization without the distraction of technique. Most of the landscapes in the show benefit from the focus on composition rather than replication. Simple geometric patterns assert themselves: one sees the forest despite the clarity of the trees. And the geometry of realism is in many ways more powerful than abstract geometry because it seems more serendipitous and more mysterious. The curve of a road, the loop of descending stairs, a white pier bisecting a blue lake, and the glowing orange rectangle of a single window all offer the complexity of nature with an elemental simplicity.

Richard McKown is the artist here who comes closest to photorealism; he's represented mainly by four large, meticulously observed self-portraits. His subject isn't quite as narcissistic as it sounds, however: McKown doesn't stare out of these paintings as one surveying an audience; rather his face betrays the vague anxiety of someone seeking answers in a mirror. In all four portraits he's engaged in painting and occupies the same cell-like studio, but it's in his handling of paint, not what he portrays, that he reveals something of who he is. There's real formalist panache in his use of props: maulsticks and periodic slivers of bright sky give these stark interiors playful threads of structure; a slender crack in the ceiling echoing the slender brush in the artist's hand can seem dramatic. Unfortunately these effects also call attention to themselves, at the expense of the subject, creating pictures that are clever but contain a void at the center. Somber Rembrandt, blunt Cezanne, high-strung van Gogh--all these artists confirm who they are as they paint themselves. But despite the clarity of McKown's style, he doesn't reveal a corresponding personality. As finished as his surfaces are, the artist still seems to be a work in progress.

Tom Tomc at first appears the most enigmatic of the group because of the way his still lifes juxtapose seemingly unrelated objects, but his focused interests prove more revealing than a self-portrait might have been. The architectural ornamentation that regularly crops up in his work gives his pieces a deceptive order--deceptive because his use of such designs is partial rather than pervasive as it would be on a building facade: there's a tyrannical symmetry to classical architecture. Tomc places his decorative fragments in uncoerced spaces, and the context creates a defining contrast: this is order in the midst of a chaotic world. In Hall of Christ, a picture of a window in Washington, D.C., the window frame echoes the shape of the canvas itself, the rococo trim harking back to an elegant age of privilege and enlightenment. Within the window frame, however, lurks the murky reflection of a dark world in which clean lines and stately columns are as misleading as they are reassuring. Does the framing window signal a nostalgia for the order of the past, or does the amorphous center mock its presumptions? Tomc's paradoxical painting is balanced enough to leave these questions unresolved.

Perhaps the most ambitious painting in the show is Jeremy Long's large portrait of Tomc, 864 North Wabash. Long places his subject dead center, facing the viewer with arms crossed defensively over his chest like a champion wrestler. Tomc's expression is as unfathomable as McKown's in his self-portraits, but Long surrounds Tomc with objects that might be clues. Some of these are the bits of architectural decor that Tomc's paintings here lead us to assume are characteristic subjects; also shown are scraps of Picasso, a cognac label, and a string of miniature abstract paintings. But are they by Tomc or by Long? Of Tomc or of Long? The sense of disarray is enhanced by the variety of painterly techniques Long uses, from rough to refined.

In 864 North Wabash the emblems of art can easily be mistaken for the emblems of friendship and personal identity. The viewer assumes the figure shown standing at his canvas on the right is Long, but unlike his subject, he has his back to the viewer. And though we might assume he's working on this portrait, his brush has produced only a single ambiguous line. Is the subject just another object in this eclectic studio? Is Long painting his friend, or his friend as part of his own life? The community property of a shared existence abolishes the easy delineation between your life and mine. Here we have the portrait as still life.

What young artists do with established genres can be bracing: they treat all techniques as new because to them they are new. And the truth is that, despite artistic fashion, a face, a figure, a stretch of street, a patch of ground can still elicit intellectual as well as emotional responses. The group now showing at Streeterville Gallery doesn't shy away from a familiar language. And familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt--it can also produce delight and respect.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Self-Portrait by Richard McKown.

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