Fort Wayne Museum

Paula Peacock, Coming Out, 2011, Courtesy of the ArtistThe Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Contemporary Realism Biennial performs a useful service. An A-list group of artists in the field—supported by a handful of high-profile specialist galleries and a network of ateliers—have achieved a level of well-deserved acclaim. But there are plenty of artists across the country working in the realist tradition who get limited exposure. Fort Wayne’s invitational and juried exhibition casts a wide net, with around a hundred works from large and small communities in thirty-four states. There are emerging and veteran artists: the youngest was born in 1991, the oldest in 1927. Anyone expecting a predominance of heartland landscapes—despite the presence of Terry Armstrong’s evocative watercolor Farm at Dusk (2011)—may be surprised by how urbanized this view of the United States is. Susan La Mott’s Heartland (2008) refers to the name of a restaurant depicted in Photorealist style. Jaye Schlesinger’s series of gouache-on-paper images of the rear-ends of trucks—seen from an on-the-highway perspective—could never be called bucolic.

Some of the strongest works are portraits with a contemporary edge, including two by David Eichenberg. Aimee (2012), oil-on-panel with an acrylic resin finish, has an almost photographic clarity of resolution. The model, seen in profile like a Renaissance princess against a stark white background, presents herself in punk style: head partially shaved with a Mohawk and skinny braid, lip and ear piercings. Only the nubby, patterned sweater keeps her from attaining the complete counterculture fashion look. Something vulnerable in her eyes adds to the sense of a particular individual, rather than just a type. Eichenberg’s Fiona (2009) is also a profile portrait, but of a less radically styled young woman, soft-featured with blue-tinted loose hair, and a casual, cowled dark jacket. The artist keeps her in sharp focus while sketching in the background—a fairground midway and its visitors—with Impressionist dashes and dots. The drama in the composition comes from a huge ferris wheel, outlined in white strokes against a cerulean sky, that looks like a halo around her face, as flat and decorative as a Mucha backdrop for a fin-de-siècle beauty.

Equally strong but more traditional are two portraits of black models. Brandon Beckstrom’s The Brazilian Guitar Player (2011) is a first-rate oil sketch in shades of black and brown that captures the particular depth and luminosity of ebony-toned skin, as well as the personality of the model. Greg Mortenson’s Sunrise (2012) is a head-on portrait of a young girl, her head and shoulders crisply outlined against an abstracted but convincing landscape—sage-green ground, impastoed white sky and, along the horizon line, glimmers of red-orange and yellow. The scale of the close-up portrait seems monumental, while her quietly alert expression and the play of warm light across her features gives the image an aura of fresh beginnings.

A number of artists favor a limited, low-key palette. Traditionally, we think of this as the special province of drawing, as in Robert Hudson’s polished graphite figure study The Kitchen Chair (2010). The Irish-American artist Sue Bryan’s portrait of a schoolboy, Days of Heaven (2012), shows the art of monochrome at its most fully realized. Bryan sometimes adds areas of localized color to her austere scenes of Irish village life, but in Days of Heaven, black and white encompasses every nuance: the soft folds of the boy’s white shirt, the chop of his dark hair, the luminescence of his skin, the light spray of freckles. Most important, she captures the introspection of a boy rapt in his own thoughts, while, at the same time, demonstrating the textural potential of her medium, charcoal on Arches Cold Press paper.

Monochrome painting has a distinguished lineage, as well, including the art of grisaille. Beth Sautter’s acrylic Measuring Spoons (2011) has the smoky palette of charcoal, but she adds warm, reddish notes, almost surreptitiously, to give the cluster of spoons a sculptural quality. The most adventurous of the monochromatic painters, David Linn, works close to edge of abstraction in his sepia-toned compositions. His large-scale oils could be described, however inadequately, as drapery studies. In The Small Section (2011), the viewer is plunged into a vortex of swirling ribbons of fabric. Only an accomplished realist could convincingly depict the play of light and supple weight of drapery, but a sci-fi imagination has created a space without gravity, something even the most freewheeling Baroque artist might have balked at. Silently (2012) fits comfortably within a recognizable genre, the landscape, but has its own alien beauty. Using a palette of umber and white for his low-lying desert landscape, he may take as a model the warm-toned nineteenth-century photographs of the American West. But that bank of clouds hovering above the minimalist topography turns out to be a fluttering banner of curvaceous white fabric, dramatically lit. Linn has cited both the Luminists and Conceptual Earthworks artists as influences. The pairing is, however improbable at first glance, apt for this imaginative painter.

Gail Postal, too, samples diverse traditions as she forges a personal style. While traveling in Russia, she became enamored with icons and began translating their stately gold-ground backdrops from saints to contemporary figures. Leslie and Rachel Triptych (2012) borrows an altarpiece format as well as a flat gold background from religious art, but the two young women she depicts are anything but hieratic. They are seated, facing each other: one, wearing underwear and a loose robe; the other, in a sleeveless dress amid a pile of boldly patterned fabrics. Their faces and bodies are softly monochromatic, drawn in graphite, but all the drapery is painted in bold, flat colors—hot pink, purple, electric blue, maroon—that have a Pop Art vibe. Postal makes this mash-up of mediums and styles, illusionism and abstract surface pattern cohesive, and the portraits have dignity and serenity.

Some paintings suggest narrative possibilities, as in Robert Schefman’s intriguing 2012 Science of Structure (cover). Before a blackboard chalked with two-point perspective drawings a man in a white shirt, his face carefully averted from the viewer, sits engaged in some existential problem-solving. The elements of the puzzle seem to be toy cars and robots, along with a stack of Crayola-bright books. Deep shadows add a neo-noir look. But many of these artists seem more comfortable working within the confines of a modest genre such as the still life. The exhibition demonstrates the wide range of stylistic options possible when depicting objects in space. Michael Sheets’s Diner Danish (2012) is a snappy little exercise in Photorealism, or at least appears so, at first glance. The pastry, a mug of coffee, salt and pepper shakers and a chrome napkin dispenser, Heinz ketchup and a jar of mustard—are all standard-issue Americana. But the light coming in through the Venetian blinds reflects off the surfaces in different ways, and the objects are arranged to take advantage of a cross-diagonal composition. In David Jamieson’s Nested (2012), the objects—bowls, saucers and a cup—are simple everyday things, but the painting is formal and contemplative. The table ledge is strictly parallel to the picture place, the backdrop is flat and neutral, the stripes on the bowls emphasize the pure geometry of the shapes—Jamieson presents the objects with the poise of a classicist.

Two flower still lifes, on the other hand, radiate drama. Ernest Viveiros transforms the botanical illustration genre into an almost-alien kind of exotica in Spiked Dahlia (2011). He records the phases of the flower’s life from tight bud to half-open to full bloom, but the white petals tipped with blood red have an unexpected ferocity. A flat midnight-blue sky and shadowy leaves serve as foils. Brian Port’s The Orchid (2011) is similarly epic. We see just the top of the plant, silhouetted against a loosely painted stormy sky backdrop. The orchid’s blossoms are in some alternate space, artificially lit; the white petals have deep shadows in their asymmetrical curves. The very effective staginess is reminiscent of Caravaggio. The undercurrents of surrealism that run through the show come to the fore in Paula Peacock’s Coming Out (2011). On a simple wooden ledge stands a brick, which supports a beautiful pear, silhouetted against a black background. A translucent grey moth perches delicately on one of the green leaves attached to the pear’s stem. The moth’s discarded cocoon rests on the wooden ledge. All these elements fit together logically. But Peacock winds a curl of apple peel around the pear, suspending the shiny ribbon of red from five thin strings, picked out in white light.  The pear, like the moth, is coming out. It’s a witty picture, skillfully painted. This is the kind of magic act that a good realist can pull off. The 2012 installment of the Contemporary Realism Biennial was on view from August 11 to October 28, 2012, at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 311 East Main Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802. Telephone (260) 422-6467.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4