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Rendering Reality: Pushing The Boundaries Of Art

Ana Nospal

Some critics argue that photography shouldn’t be considered “art” because it is merely a mechanical record of an event. However, the way that a photograph is taken often leaves an authorial signature, a sign that something more than direct representation is going on. Photorealism, similarly, has often been dismissed as a mere copy of photographs, but this argument might be missing the same point.

Photorealism Revisited, currently on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art presents 63 paintings from the 1960s artistic movement that defied the traditional definition of artistic expression through explicitly realistic interpretations of photographs. The museum further embraced modern technology as part of the exhibition last month by inviting one of the artists, Robert Neffson, to participate in a chat via Skype.

Neffson’s paintings have been recognized and exhibited worldwide. He explains that in his work, he combines many different photos together, sometimes from drastically different times, to create a deceptively simple, hyper-real aesthetic.

“My process is very conventional and traditional.” said Neffson. “It’s basically paint and the brushes. The biggest misconception is that I take one photograph and just copy it and render it. And what is part of it is real fun is putting this thing together from hundreds of photographs."

oil painting
Credit Courtesy International Arts
Robert Neffson, "57th Street", 2011, oil on linen, Bernarducci.Meisel.Gallery, New York

Photorealism, as an American art movement, began in the 1960s. New York City gallery owner Louis K. Meisel coined the phrase to describe a group of artists who favored the new type of expression. Artists like Robert Neffson, Tom Blackwell, and Charles Bell attempted to reproduce what the camera recorded. OKCMOA Associate Curator Jenifer Klos says the painters used a 35mm camera to capture images, and then transferred them to a work surface so the viewer would understand it as an objective, identifiable art.

Klos explains how artists within this movement often relied on technology not only for recording a reference image, but for the physical process of creating the final works. Pointing to an enormous painting of a baby chick.  

“This painting is by Peter Maier, called "Chick". We are looking in a baby chick that is painted on black aluminum panel… he used a very special paint created by DuPont.  Peter Maier works for General Motors and design an automobile, so he is familiar with industrial materials and also the smooth surface of cars and the way that the paint apply to the cars, and very thin layers to appear very smooth. Now, if you do get closer you can decipher some small brushstroke that you can see with a human eye. But some of these are so detailed they truly do appear as photographs.”

Credit Ana Nospal
Associate Curator at the OKCMOA Jennifer Klos stands next to "Chick" a photorealistic painting by Peter Maier.

The combination of vehicles, urban landscape, and the almost-photographic quality of the paintings perfectly portrays everyday environments, but captured with the skill and emotion required for fine art. Klos says some modern critics of the movement think this type of art now seems incomprehensible in our digital world.

“They have been just using photography to help then capture the detail and sometimes details the human eye cannot even decipher. And what you could see is that they are so detailed almost hyper-real that you think that the whole image is under magnifying glass.”  

For artists like Robert Neffson, the painting and their brushes are the love of their life. 

“Assembling, constructing this image that I have really in my mind, the rendering is not the biggest thing, what most people think." Neffson explained. "Everybody does it differently. Some people use airbrush. I never do that, because I really like, you know, just the gesture of moving my hand around and touching the painting I think it keeps it very much alive…”

“Photorealism Revisited” will remain on display until April 21, 2013.

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