Jenkins Johnson Gallery

Christopher Young, Golgotha, 2004 Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San FranciscoJenkin's Johnson Gallery in San Francisco presented its Sixth Annual Realism Invitational this summer. The term realism is a more elastic rubric for contemporary practitioners than it was for nineteenth-century artists. While the thirty-six artists—mostly painters—in the exhibition share a commitment to depicting the world as it appears with as much skill as they can. They work in a variety of styles, including photorealist, trompe l’oeil and brushy impressionism. They also venture into subject matter that could be considered surreal or symbolic. As Daniel Sprick explains the process, “the art is to extract parts of reality and leave the rest.” ( Sprick, who paints domestic interiors with still-life arrangements, is enamored of Northern Renaissance artists such as Robert Campin, the van Eyck brothers and Hugo van der Goes who, he remarks, “leave me feeling both helpless and empowered.” Yet Sprick’s own work has a very different look than those jewel-toned, clear-edged works, although he picks up on the enigmatic charge of everyday objects in Flemish art. Still Life with Peeled Orange (2004) focuses on a tabletop group of objects: a jagged broken bottle, a Campbell’s soup can, a white rose and the papery white membrane of the skinned orange. Everything—including the woodgrain of the table and the white wall behind it—is bathed in silvery light. Sprick will be showing new work at Jenkins Johnson gallery this fall (September 2–October 2, 2004). 

Several of the artists confront iconographic tradition more directly. Chirstopher Young’s Golgotha (2004) is straightforward and moving; the radical simplification of the background detaches the figure of Christ from any particular historical context, while the geometric perfection of the symmetrical body moves it into an almost philosophical realm. Robert Van Vranken’s Annunciation after van der Weyden (2003) is a tour de force which juxtaposes elements from traditional iconography—a vase of lilies, the prone figure in a red-swagged bed in a Renaissance interior—with objects that signal scientific curiosity and artistic craft. Framed like an altarpiece, the work has a lunette of brushy sky painting. The convincing perspective leads the eye deep into the richly paneled room, down the corridor and into a mysterious chamber beyond, suggesting a penetration of historical meaning. John Nava’s preparatory Study of a Virgin from 2002 (cover) is comparatively simple but equally compelling. The lovely model is both timeless and contemporary; iconographic details are reduced to the suggestion of a halo and the young woman’s downcast eyes, which hint at serene acceptance of the devine will. Nava uses loose brushwork to sketch her hair and clothes, focuses on his model’s face, depicted front-on and with meticulous polish. Her ethnic lock reflects the wide-ranging humanity of Nava’s most ambitious project to date, a suite of tapestries for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The 135 figures in the Communion of the Saints are realistically depicted individuals sanctified by grace. 

In the catalogue for the Fifth Annual Realism Invitational, Paul J. Karlstron described Sherrie Wolf’s genre as a “shotgun wedding of still life and landscape.” Wolf is back with Yellow Turnips after Ruisdael (2004), which incorporates a Dutch painting, complete with windmill and harbor, as the backdrop for a flamboyant bouquet in a crystal vase. The baroque exaggeration of the flowers is part vibrant color, part discontinuity of scale; they dwarf the landscape behind them. Still lifes in general formed a particularly strong group this year. Skip Steinworth’s Peonies and Stick (2004) is one of his trademark drawings, astonishingly precise, reminding us that a pencil can rival the camera for verismilitude, while adding the sensuousness of the human touch. Anthony Ryder’s Rose and Teapot (2004) has the polished bravura of one of William Merritt Chase’s still lifes, with the crimson flower set off by the rich earth tones of a few vessels. Tim Merrett likes to play late-twentieth-century modes against earlier ways of looking. Floral Abstraction after Renoir (2004) sets a masterfully executed flower study within a broad frame of painterly abstraction. Michael Zigmond’s Two Yellow Pears (2004) takes still life in another direction, suggesting monumental scale and a hallucinatory context; the fruit looks slightly artificial and, at the same time, disturbingly biomorphic. In another genre Ben Aronson’s streetscape Toward the Presidio (2004)—loosely brushed, carving tectonic masses out of light and shadow—evokes the representationalist roots of Diebenkorn’s abstractions. Aronson will have a solo show at Jenkins Johnson from October 7 to November 4, 2004. Established in 1996, this gallery has become, in less than a decade, a showcase for the revival in realism, with a mission that includes not only bringing together artists and audiences but also providing a forum for discussion. This year’s catalogue features an essay by historian Claire Daigle, who notes: “a heightened moment of visual awareness extended from artist to viewer in representational rendering can be a thing of wonder.” This year’s exhibition demonstrates the validity of that assertion. Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94104. Telephone (415) 677-0770. On the web at:

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2004, Volume 21, Number 3