What is Real? What is Art?

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Charles Bell “Majorette” 1993

Anyone who surfs the net with any regularity has noticed the tendency of sites to borrow from one another in terms of topics and trends; as a result, certain items and ideas rapidly gain in exposure and popularity and as media consumers, we quickly become bored and eager to move on to the next hot item.  In the past few years, one popular topic has recurred quite frequently; paintings and drawings that look exactly like photographs and are labeled as “photorealism” or “hyperrealism.” Most of us have seen examples of such work.  We probably paused for a moment in slight shock at the realistic reproductions, or felt envy over the talent it took to create such a piece.  But this style of artwork is more than just an internet trend.  These creations which we view without consideration and then easily dismiss are actually representations of two wide sweeping art movements which have their own defining characteristics and philosophies.

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Doug Bloodworth ”Quick Draw”

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Roberto Bernardi “La Tavolozza” 2010

The word photorealism was first used in 1969 by American author and art dealer Louis K. Meisel.  It is defined as the realistic reproduction of a photograph using pencils, paints or other graphic mediums.  Begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, the photorealism movement is described by Meisel as having five distinct characteristics. Among them, the artist must use a camera or photographic means to gather information, utilize a mechanical or semi-mechanical means to transfer the information to the canvas, and have the technical ability to create a result that looks like a photograph.  As such, photorealistic work is wholly dependent upon the photograph, and the work produced represents an image frozen in time.

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Ralph Goings ”Miss Albany Diner” 1993

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Robert Bechtle “’61 Pontiac”

Many artists who work in this style emphasize the importance of first correctly choosing a satisfactory photograph to work from.  To ensure accuracy, the image is often transferred to the canvas using traditional grid techniques.  Artists working with paints often begin by producing the image in a monochrome and then add color in light layers called glazes.  As each layer of glaze must dry completely before another one can be applied, it is a time consuming process.  In comparison, artists working in pencil also often utilize a layering technique, and rely heavily on cross-hatching and erasing to add texture and gradations of shade. Regardless of the medium, photorealism is highly technical and requires great dedication to detail.  When viewing the results, there is no doubt that artists of this genre have exceptional abilities and knowledge.

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Ron Kleeman ”Mack Split” 1975

Despite the skill and work that photorealism requires, when it first began to gain popularity in the late 1960s, it was deeply criticized due to the openly admitted use of cameras and photographs as part of the artistic process. Historically, visual devices to aid in art production have been in existence for centuries and many artists utilized cameras and photographs from their inception. However, artists traditionally denied the use of these aids as they did not want to be labeled as imitators. The camera and its invention caused great shifts in the art world; it easily showed the inferiority of portrait and scenic paintings in capturing reality, and artists realized that their work would never truly measure up to what a camera could produce.  Consequently, once photography became an accepted artistic medium, it negated the need for realism within painting and drawing.  This freed artists to experiment with other styles and the conventions of art that had guided them for so long lost their meaning and influence.

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Richard Estes “Supreme Hardware” 1974

Photorealism developed as a reactionary movement both against the abstract movement which dominated the art world and had removed any significance from the pursuit of realism in traditional artistic mediums and against photographic media which was so widespread that it had eroded the significance of visual imagery in art. Photorealism sought to restore the value of the image by producing it in a new fashion; it combined the realistic results of a photograph with the technical abilities of classic artists.

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John Baeder “Stardust Motel” 1977

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Sculpture by Sam Jinks ”Woman and Child” 2010

Photorealist artists of the 1970s often focused on subjects from more traditional genres of art such as landscapes, portraits and still-lifes. The photorealist artists of today often create work of the same themes, but due to advances in technology, the results are more extreme. These creations often fall under the label of hyperrealism. Because of their similarity and the fact that one movement developed from the other, the terms photorealism and hyperrealism are often used interchangeably and sometimes incorrectly.

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Audrey Flack “Marilyn” 1977

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Diego Fazio “Sensazioni”

In fact, hyperrealism, which developed in the early 2000s, can be characterized as producing more definitive and detailed creations than photorealism.  While photorealistic artists generate strict reproductions and often alter or omit specific details to maintain a cohesive result, creators of hyperrealism working from high quality photographs are able to produce images and sculptures that are often narrative and emotive and with their complex focus they strive to reproduce an illusion of reality that often surpasses the original subject.  Accordingly, hyperrealism draws on the philosophies of French theorist Jean Baudrillard which promote the creation and allure of a simulated reality which is more distinctly defined and often preferable to actual reality.  As hyperrealism has been built upon advances in technology, it has the ability to manipulate the reality that it presents, much as a digital photograph can be altered.  Thus, at its core, hyperrealism creates a reality that often does not exist and the artists often utilize this aspect to draw attention to pressing social and political issues of today.

llllSelf Portrait by Eloy Morales

 

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Franco Clun “Ray Bradbury”

From its inception, photorealism has stirred debate as to whether realistic reproductions of already existing images should be considered art. Many people question the importance or purpose of photorealism and hyperrealism; if an image already exists, what is the point of reproducing it? What does this add to the value of the image?  These may be valid queries, but they take us back to the controversy that has existed since art first appeared; what is art? How can we define it? And what does it mean? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions, but one thing is certain; artistic creations that provoke discussion and debate are creations that should be given consideration.  If art does nothing else, it should make us think.

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Emanuele Dascanio “’The Father’ does not want a divorce with ‘Die Mutter’—This is my Father.” 2013

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Alyssa Monks “Bait” 2010

 

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