Representational artists are becoming more high-profile these days, and group shows are part of the phenomenon. Because they tend to cast a wide net, group shows sometimes yield a mixed bag, in terms of quality. While it’s encouraging to see more realists, long shut out by a powerful segment of the art establishment, getting their chance, galleries—and viewers—need to be discriminating. One of the premier galleries specializing in contemporary realism, John Pence in San Francisco brought together thirty-two artists for its “Interiors” exhibition in February. Many artists focused on uninhabited rooms, exploring the implicit geometry of interior spaces and the effects of natural or artificial light. Travis Schlaht’s Hallway (2005) brought a sense of mystery to a deceptively simple arrangement of planes, harmonizing the strong, almost modernist shape of a frontal white wall with warm wooden surfaces seen in perspective. David Larned’s The Living Room (2005), with sunlight patterning too much furniture, seemed cluttered compositionally, in comparison. Sunlight is more effectively depicted in Shawn Fields’s Gold Street Construction (2005), illuminating debris from a makeshift skylight and side windows seen in sharply angled perspective. The open grey space of the floor has the austere beauty only a painter would perceive.
The borders of the interior genre are fluid, and some works could just as easily be classified as social observation, self-portrait, still life, trompe l’oeil or even symbolic. Unfortunately, trying an ambitious subject does not always pay off. Dan Thompson’s Annunciation in the Studio (2005) tackles an old master subject that has offered generations of artists opportunities to explore the iconographic possibilities of light. Neither historicist nor contemporary, Thompson’s lay-figure stand-ins for virgin and angel seem rudimentary, and the chalky light and vaguely Impressionist color convey little sense of drama or reverence. The psychological, formal and theological aspects of this theme have sparked a variety of responses over the centuries, and it would be interesting to see what other contemporary realists might make of it.
Many of the artists use the interior genre to consider the subject of art itself. There are two views of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum. Dean Larsen’s Lobby Interior, Metropolitan Museum (2005) looks down on milling visitors bathed in yellow light, but the scene has the anonymity of any large public space. Stephen J. Levin’s more interesting Manet Morning at the Met (2004) captures the somewhat aquatic atmosphere of the nineteenth-century galleries. The miniature versions of masterworks are deftly done, notably the opulent Courbet nude in the next room, framed by an arch in a favorite vista of museumgoers. And Levin is a keen observer of human behavior, recording the mingled weariness and pleasure of those sitting on velour poufs, the boredom of a pair of guards, the animation of a couple discussing a picture not quite in frame and the rapt attention of a little girl. The photographers Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky have made a specialty of this subject in their epic-scale color images, but this painting of paintings has a nice cultural resonance of its own. The artist regards himself in Darren Kingsley’s Studio Interior, Winter ‘05 (2005), which uses a mirror and multiple light sources to set off the scruffy, heroic artist figure.
Many contemporary realists seem to avoid the big themes in favor of sensitive observation. While the viewer might want to see their skill applied to bolder subjects, there is solid value in the simple approach. With the interior genre that approach often involves the formal play of rectangles, and there are excellent examples here. Nicholas M. Raynolds’s Interior with Frames (2005) emphasizes surface pattern with sharply outlined empty picture frames and window panes, enlivened by a bold zigzag of sunlight. Peter Van Dyck’s Sunlit Hallway (2005) stresses depth and recession, drawing the eye back through a series of doorways to a bright triangle on a far wall.Mikel Glass’s Artist in Studio (2005), with its garish palette and incongruous motifs of rubber gloves and balls, seems hard-edged and busy; the composition fails to clarify the jumble of the workspace. But Carl Dobsky’s Interior (2005) brings together objects that present an artist’s way of thinking without showing the artist. Books, brushes, an outsized palette, frames, cardboard tubes, an ecorché are arranged with graceful informality in the corner of the room, along with tiny flowers in a brass vase and a brown pitcher and white cup. Dobsky paints with finesse. The color range is limited, but the permutations of light and shadow create a serene environment. Douglas Flynt’s Process (2005) is a more straightforward view of the artist’s workspace. A bright light illuminates a drawing on an easel, a representation of the fencing jacket and gear mounted on the wall beside it. The artist’s paraphernalia is deployed around this centerpiece. It’s a clever painting, if not quite as nuanced as Dobsky’s. John Pence Gallery is located at 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (405) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com
Another winter show, at William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts, featured thirteen artists interpreting the still-life genre. The names are less stellar than those on the Pence roster, and the stronger artists stand out amid some lackluster company. One of the better artists here is Barbara Groff, whose pastels (all dated 2005) have a smoky depth. She builds her still-life arrangements in ways that imply intriguing narratives, a cabinet full of alchemical-looking oddities in Oz Revisited, an ad hoc classical column from a stack of books in Literary Artist. Her long horizontal-format depiction of a tabletop recalls a landscape, with its stormy grey background and off-kilter bare branch with red berries; the feeling is underlined by the title, Windswept. Less appealing is Scott Prior’s 2006 oil Kitchen Still Life, with a busy collection of objects double-tiered on a counter and a window sill. The space, fairly convincing illusionistically, does not work well pictorially. The main focus is the light, conveyed in fuzzed-out bright colors, which seem neither ripe nor subtle.
William Baczek Fine Arts is located at 36 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts 01060. Telephone (413) 587-9880. On the web www.wbfinearts.com. Contemporary realists often demonstrate skill in rendering the detail of an object, as Jeremiah Patterson does in his watercolor Morning Shine (2005). The color and texture of flowers, fruit and a ceramic bowl are sensitively captured, and the filigree shadow on the wall adds nuance. But the small table is awkwardly placed, and the background remains inert. The negative space in a composition should be as interesting as the ostensible subject, something the old masters understood and a lesson made explicit by the modernists. There are different stylistic camps in the contemporary realist movement; two of the most obvious could be characterized as old master and Pop-inflected. Larry Preston’s Plums and China (2005) testifies to the artist’s admiration for and understanding of the past. It’s a tight close-up on blue-and-white tableware and ripe fruit, compositionally strong and rich in color. Robin Freedenfeld, on the other hand, likes outdoor sunlight and hard edges. Her floral still lifes are bright, clean and as quick to make an impression as a snappy magazine layout. Poolside Orchid (2006) is an overhead view of a potted plant on a white stool. The spray of orchid curves against the blank blue of the water, but the principal visual fun lies in the interlocking patterns of table slats and shadows over the grid of tiles. Her Paeonia (2006) takes a different tack, putting a blue glass vase and monumental rosy blossoms against a sky with fleecy clouds. The outsized naturalism of the flowers is juxtaposed against the flat pattern of the blue-and-white tablecloth, which features a stylized leaf and vine motif. The Pop Art vocabulary comes to the fore in Robert Sweeney’s Re-Districting (2005), although with less visually exciting results. Sweeney falls back on all-American icons, a draped flag and a group of nine candy apples; despite lively color, the composition seems routine. Sweeney’s Cherries, with its tiny, scattered eponymous subjects and no backdrop, seems even plainer. Contemporary realists are often overly modest in their ambitions, perhaps in deference to past masters. But too often, less is less. The great artist’s ability to simplify entails a distillation, a clarification rooted in thorough exploration of spatial relationships and formal dynamics. Here, Mark Zunino tries for the architectural geometric simplifications of Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964), but Green Vaseand Pear and Two Tangerines (both 2005), while shapely compositions, lack the controlled energy found in the work of William Bailey, a contemporary master of the genre.