Jenkins Johnson Gallery

Jacob Pfeiffer, The Obvious Choice, 2006 Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San FranciscoThe gallery scene, once mostly dormant during the summer months, now extends across a longer schedule. During June and July, Jenkins Johnson Gallery presented its Eighth Annual Realism Invitational. For the first time the event was held on both coasts, with twenty of the thirty-eight artists showing work in both San Francisco and New York City. This invitational was dedicated to the memory of Robert Brawley (1937–2006), with seven works, seen only in San Francisco. A visual philosopher as well as a fine craftsman, he juxtaposed versions of Ingres nudes and Flemish Christs with alchemically charged still-life elements. The originality of his paintings demonstrated how traditional iconography can be re-imagined. His boldness will be missed. As in the past, the organizers of this year’s exhibition tried to show the diversity of contemporary realism, but in a fairly compact community, the roster of names seemed largely familiar. Skip Steinworth’s exquisite graphite drawings are always a pleasure; Four Apples (2006) has uncanny soft reflections and almost palpable textures. But the catalogue cover went to a bolder image, one of Will Wilson’s sumptuous riffs on the old masters. The subject of Valencia (2006) is posed like a refined Renaissance beauty, but in her simple black, unadorned by jewels, the dark young woman has a vivid, earthier presence all her own. A gold-lined green curtain is pulled back to reveal a blue-tinged lunar landscape in the Flemish style.

Landscape as an autonomous genre did not make a strong showing this year. There were routine examples by Victoria Adams, Scott Prior and Kathleen Lipinksky, while Sherrie Wolf’s familiar hybrid of outsized fruit and landscape backdrops occupies a separate category. There were brushy cityscapes by Ben Aronson and Sonya Sklaroff, scenes of west and east coast urban spaces, respectively. Tim Lowly gave a lovely, overcast light to his low-key figure-in-a-landscape Turnaround (2002); the muted loneliness invited narrative. The best landscape on view came closer to abstraction than realism. Michael Workman’s Spring City from the West Fields at Sunset (2005) positions a narrow row of boxy houses between expanses of sunset reds and earth browns, evoking both Mark Rothko and the big sky of the American west. Nudes ranged from straightforwardly academic (Wade Reynolds) to character study (Terry L. Johnson) to surreal (Francesca Sundsten and Michael Bergt). Sundsten’s Birdland (2006) capped a figure like Leonardo’s Leda with a falcon’s head and placed her in an ornithological diorama. Bergt’s Constellation (2005) superimposed a Western-style nude over a facsimile of an erotic Japanese print; a decorative pattern of translucent flame shapes radiated from the central figure. Bergt paints with egg tempera, which gives his work a glossy texture. He continues to play with East-West conventions in Encircle (2004), with a Latina or Indian girl posed in front of flatter Japanese-print figures. A fair number of works were playful, including Scott Frasier’s Tack Man II (2006), a portrait of sorts; the figure was a gravity-defying assemblage of blocks, spool, compass and clown toy. This improbable structure was surrounded by menacing-looking tacks. You could image it as a Pixar character, if it weren’t rendered with near trompe l’oeil realism.

The still life continues to be a popular genre with realists, perhaps because it offers a comfort factor. Jeffrey Ripple evokes traditional botanical specimen images and, in Flowers, Apricots, a Skull from Pegi (2004), the vanitas theme. He is skillful—the reflection of the fruit on a pewter plate is convincing—and adds a twist by using a continuous dull gold ground that works simultaneously as flat pictoral color and illusionistic surface. Too many pictures in this category, however, seem like exercises rather than inventions. Nancy Switzer’s heavily impastoed screens of aluminum cans and milk bottles are more adventurous in exploring the threshold between representation and abstraction, but the results are muddled. The standout among still lifes here is Jacob Pfeiffer’s The Obvious Choice (2006), a side-by-side presentation of a turnip and a candy apple. Pfeiffer’s slowly crafted, meticulous paintings have an old master quality, especially recalling the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Zubáran’s dead-on frontality and featureless backgrounds. In The Obvious Choice the inky backdrop sets off the rounded objects like jeweler’s velvet. The title could be a witty riposte to the traditional moralizing of the vanitas tradition. The homely vegetable and the shiny confection echo each other in shape, even to the turnips upended root mimicking the apple’s stick. But the apple’s iconographic heritage— as Eve’s temptation and Snow White’s undoing—is emphasized by the artifice of its ruby candy shell. Pfeiffer is just over thirty, and it will be interesting to watch his progress.  Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s west coast location is 464 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94108; in the east, 521 West 26th Street, New York, New York 10001. On the Web at

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2006, Volume 23, Number 4