A recent group show (March 1–April 15, 2013) at Gallery 1261 in Denver, Colorado, brought together works by fifteen respected contemporary realists. Still lifes predominated, and while traditionalist examples of the genre were well represented, there was an undercurrent of quirkiness occasionally verging on surrealism. The title of Jeff Uffelman’s Statue of Liberty (2013) acknowledges the accidental resemblance of a stout branch in a glass to Lady Liberty. But he makes it clear his interest lies in the visual dynamic of his arrangements, especially the play of light across clear glass and opaque ceramics, and remarks: “I strive to avoid the popular notion of narrative.” Scott Fraser, on the other hand, relishes the role of visual storyteller, or perhaps more accurately, gag writer. He cites Louise Bourgeois and Wayne Thiebaud, modernists who never relinquished their own very personal narratives, as art heroes. Their influence, for this contemporary realist, is more temperamental than stylistic. Fraser’s Narwhal Love (2012) depicts a toy narwhal, with its distinctive unicorn spike, beside—and enraptured by—a twisty candle. Robert C. Jackson’s Terrified (2013) is similarly playful, starring a wind-up shark. Propped up on an “X” alphabet block, the shark seems to be swimming straight for an anthropomorphized apple, with a bitten-out screaming mouth, blue pushpins for eyes and a bunch of toothpicks cleverly mimicking hair standing on end.
In a more serious vein, skulls and skeletons, staples of old master vanitas still lifes, appear in several works. Anthony Waichulis’s Origins (2013) is a trompe l’oeil exercise, built on the optical illusion of layers of images. A humanoid or ape skull is sharper in focus than a blurred animal skull in the background. An ink pen suggests the presence of the artist. But all these may be present in a photograph or mirror, as the surface is partially covered by four pieces of colored paper with rudimentary doodles. Sadie Valeri’s Heavenly Creatures (2012) is straightforward realism at its most elegant. Two luminous animal skulls rest on a wooden ledge that seems to float in an inky void. The detail of the ledge, old wood covered with blue and white flaking paint, is exquisite. The more elongated skull, perhaps a bird, rests its beak on the other skull, shorter and more alien-looking, in a touchingly companionable way. Daniel Sprick is another artist enamored of the beauty of bones. His Interior with Bird (2011) makes a splendid bird skeleton, reared up on two spindly legs, the centerpiece of a sophisticated hall of mirrors. The bird and other still-life objects are repeated twice, but are they reflected in a mirror or represented on a canvas? The white-grey-blue-black palate is superbly nuanced and adds to the air of mystery.
For Heather Neill, as for Sprick, the border between still life and interior is fluid. The Mender (2013) is not, as the title might suggest, a portrait or genre scene. The artist shows us an old-fashioned white nightgown draped over a chair, a teacup sits on a table loaded with thread, needles and other notions. A mending basket sits on the floor. The room is plunged into darkness, yet objects in the foreground are dramatically lit, apparently by the single candle on the table. The intense chiaroscuro is reminiscent of Baroque theatricality. Neill does not think of herself as a narrative painter but acknowledges the impulse to find a story: “While the props and the teacups may have their own ideas about where to be placed in a still life, every single person who takes the time to look at the finished painting is seeing a version of their own narrative. I am just the editor.”
Representational paintings, at a basic level, deal in how things look and how we experience the world. The artists in this exhibition seem to be considering how the notion of narrative fits into those parameters, without tackling traditions such as history painting head on. All paintings, whether abstract or realistic, also deal more or less explicitly with the substance of paint itself. Alyssa Monks’s signature works play with surface distortions, often showing a figure under water. Comply (2013) calls particularly pointed attention to surface paint. We see a young woman’s face through a veil of heavy white paint, as if we were looking at her through a smeary glass shower. Monks created the work while staying with her ill mother, but the painting is not autobiographical. Rather, it concerns, she writes, “the transcendence of that story to relay the experience…on another level, a cellular or emotional level, even without total explanation of what that story is.”
Andrea Kemp’s The Nature of Painting (2012) also uses white paint unexpectedly, to challenge the autonomous illusionism of the image and emphasize that realism is, however convincing, an artistic fiction. The backstory here is not personal but art historical. It’s a classic studio still life: a work table with solvents in cans and bottles, a blue rag and a canister full of brushes. A spill of white paint on the table is plausible, but another smear undercuts the integrity of the white jar, reminding us that everything in this simulacrum is as liquid as a Dalí watch. Gallery 1261, 1261 Delaware, Denver, Colorado 80204. Telephone (303) 571-1261. Gallery1261.com