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Get Real: Exhibit Displays The Works Of Top Photorealists at Tampa Museum Of Art

Tampa Museum of Art
Ralph Goings (American, b. 1928) Collins Diner, 1985-86, Oil on canvas.

A treasured painting has returned to the Tampa Museum of Art and is a centerpiece for its latest exhibit, "Photorealism: 50 years of Hyperrealistic Painting."

"Collins Diner," by Ralph Goings is considered to be one of the more important works in photorealism.  That's why it spent the past three years hanging on the walls of museums from Germany to Spain. Now the European photorealist tour has come to America, where its only and final stop, is in Tampa Bay.

"I know that a lot of our longtime visitors love this painting and it’s not always out on view," said Seth Pevnick, the museum's chief curator. "People talk about familiar artworks being like old friends and this one certainly is to the Tampa Museum of Art."

For Pevnick, "Collins Diner," with its chrome counters and glass enclosed desert cases, reveals Goings as a master of capturing the effects of light on surface.

The painting also embodies all the characteristics of photorealism. The genre favors quintessential American subjects like diners, along with art deco movie theaters, highway truck stops and classic cars. 

Photorealism emerged parallel to pop-art. But Joanna Robotham, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, says the genres are not the same.

Joanna Robotham, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Seth Pevnick, Chief Curator, Tampa Museum of Art

"I think what differentiates this group of painters from the pop artists is that someone like Warhol takes the soup can and he's commenting on consumer culture," she said.  "I've always seen it as much more political.  It's much more about excess and consumerism. When I look at the Ralph Goings and his renditions of diners, I think that these are more about nostalgia."

Some art historians believe photorealism was also a counter to abstract expressionism, which was all about feelings and improvisation.

"One of the things that appealed to the photorealists were the sort of mundane things in our lives that we don't really think about and that certainly haven't usually been the subject of fine art," said Pevnick. "But here they are, hanging on the wall in a museum and making us think about them in different ways."  

The first generation of photorealists emerged in the late 1960s and used a variety of methods to produce their work. Ralph Goings projected a photographic slide onto canvas and then sketched in pencil before painting. Artist Chuck Close, who is also represented in the exhibit, created a complex grid system.

The term photorealism was coined in 1969 by New York City gallery owner Louis K. Meisel

"He put together this small show in his gallery and a critic came to the show and said, ‘This is great what do you call these guys?’ and Meisel said, 'Well I don’t really know, they’re realist painters and they’re working from photographs so I’ll call them photorealists,'" said Pevnick. "The next day it was in the New York Times and the name has stuck many decades later." 

Because photorealists create works from photographs, you might think that there would be a proliferation of paintings that go along with the images. Not so, says Robotham.

"The reality of it is that even though it's based on say a quick image that takes only a second to take, the paintings themselves can take months for the artist to complete because of that hyperrealist detail," she said. "In their rendering of the painting, they are really looking at precise color, precise light, and precise  highlights and shades."

Credit Louis K. Meisel Collection
Peter Maier (American, b. 1945) Plum Delicious, 2006, DuPont Cromax-AT on fabricated aluminum panel.

Thanks to digital technology, today's photorealists can achieve even greater detail in their work.

Peter Maier is a former designer for General Motors and naturally favors cars as his subjects. The artist also paints on aluminum, not canvas.  

"And the paint that he's using is the same type of paint that is used to paint automobiles," said Pevnick. "If you look at the label for this painting it says it’s DuPont Cromax AT on fabricated aluminum panel. And he's using a spray gun to spray the paint onto this metal panel."

Historically, artists from Degas to Cezanne have used photographs as visual aids in their work. But using realistic imagery to create an optical illusion goes back even further in art history. Pevnick says there's a famous story about a painting contest that took place in the fifth century B.C.

"The first painter showed his work which showed a bunch of grapes, and a bird flew down and tried to peck at the grapes and the painter obviously was very proud of himself and he said okay now pull back the curtain and show me yours and the other painter said, that's not a curtain, that's a painting of a curtain."

The photorealist method requires a high level of technical skill and Pevnick says the best of the work is so close to reality, that it can essentially trick the eye.

"And I always tell people, you can intellectualize the photorealist movement if you like, but if you come to the show and you look across the room and you say, 'Is that a photograph or is that a painting?' And you come up close and you look and you say, 'Oh my gosh, that's a painting,' then you've gotten it. At least to a certain extent."

And for the artists and its fans, photorealism isn't about reproduction or even capturing reality. It's about creating work that lives somewhere between what is real and what is imagined.

"Photorealism: 50 years of Hyperrealistic Painting" is on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through October 22.

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