Photorealism holds a unique space in contemporary art. The painstaking, virtuosic painting style feels out of place sometimes in our digital age of quick and easy photographic reproduction. But it is precisely this conflict that makes it important. Utilizing extreme precision to handcraft extremely realistic images allows artists to explore the conventions of and assumptions of painting and photography simultaneously—celebrating and undermining the mediums entwined legacies.
The photorealist movement, which came to prominence in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, has long had a conflicted relationship with the art world. Early practitioners explored mass media concurrently with Pop art, but in a radically differently manner. The style bumped up against the continued fascination with both gestural and geometric abstraction, and with minimalism. Commonly misunderstood, photorealism has been confused for trompe l’oeil and is often considered redundant relative to photography itself. Early photorealist innovators such as Richard Estes, Carolyn Brady, and Chuck Close developed techniques that remain vital today, in dialogue with shifting art trends and photography’s expansion due to the hyper-accessibility of smartphone cameras.
Since coining the term in 1969, New York gallerist Louis K. Meisel has been a major proponent of photorealism, which continues to be evident at his eponymous SoHo gallery and at Bernarducci.Meisel Gallery, the 57th Street outpost that Meisel co-runs with Frank Bernarducci. Both spaces showcase masters of the method as well as a new cohort of practitioners.
One very striking aspect of photorealism in the 21st century, perhaps a parallel to digital technology’s limitless capabilities, is that it allows for a powerful blend of fantasy and reality. Greek artist Paul Caranicas, for example, depicts realistic landscapes with hallucinatory events, such as homes falling from the sky. Hubert de Lartigue and Hilo Chen develop voluptuous paintings of nude and near-nude women, which exude sexual fantasy through minute details—as seen in Chen’s Beach 169 (2011), with its obsessively precise beads of sweat on exposed skin. Sharon Moody takes fantasy in another direction entirely, rendering old copies of collectible comics in works such as Siegel and Shuster’s Action Comics #1, June 1938 (2014), to play with both the fantasy of the superhero and the idealization of the rare and expensive collectible magazines.
For some artists, photorealism has become a means of exploring iconic images of scenes we might otherwise miss or overlook. Robert Gniewek documents the police photos of accused killers, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and James Holmes, rendering each in a grisaille palette, encouraging viewers to reflect on these institutional portraits as classical images of tragedy, banality, and horror. Italian painter Ester Curini depicts animals isolated against white backgrounds, capturing their complex personalities in the same way one would a human sitter, and echoing contemporary Internet fascination with pets and other animals.
These and other artists—with their depictions of gleaming cars, lush landscapes, erotic figures, contemplative busts—show that technical craftsmanship can still reveal ideas that photography, expressionism, and abstraction do not. The place of photorealism has only become more complex in the past 50 years, but that may simply mean that it’s becoming more responsive and essential to contemporary art.