From a dramatic maritime scene, to two secret service officers hiding behind a car, to a nude woman surrounded by canines, the works featured in “Contemporary Realism” at Cavalier Galleries are certainly eclectic. When understood in the context of American realism, photorealism, and hyperrealism, however, they form a cohesive exhibition, representing the varied interpretations of realism.
Realism emerged in 19th-century France as an attempt to objectively depict quotidian life. Almost a century later, in 1969, “photorealism” was coined by art dealer Louis K. Meisel to describe paintings that emulate sharp, focused photographs. Hyperrealism emerged in Europe shortly after. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously wrote in 1981 that the term referred to “the simulation of something which never really existed”—in other words, visual works characterized as hyperrealistic offer compelling illusions of reality.
Carole A. Feuerman’s Miniature Balance (2013) provides a stunning example of hyperrealist sculpture. Making use of oil, resin, and Swarovski crystals, Feuerman renders a female swimmer in a seated meditation. Little droplets dot the figure’s skin and glisten brilliantly, echoing in form and luster the crystalline cap around her head. The subject is relatively believable: a woman who finished a swim, hopped out of a body of water, and fell perfectly into a lotus position. But the extreme shine of her lamé suit and the orange sheen of her skin remind viewers that the figure is not real, but in fact an embellishment of reality.
Blue Lotus (2014) by Deon Duncan relates to Feuerman’s work in surprising ways. Similarly, Duncan’s sculpture is a swimsuit-clad figure positioned in a traditional way, but reinterpreted with a fresh, contemporary twist. Suspended in midair with his palms spread open, the subject of Blue Lotus could easily be understood as a crucifix if not for key modern details: a swim cap, goggles, and a speedo. The corporeal feel of the piece—realized particularly in the figure’s protruding ribs and articulated tendons—is compelling. But just when we are almost convinced of this visual reality, an impossible blue wash spreads from the figure’s toes to clavicle, reminding us of the bronze materiality of the piece.
With Scott Duce’s painting Vessel Kora (2011), the classic realist themes of landscape and still life mix with an enthusiastic application of trompe l’oeil. The images in the frame—a landscape painting over a counter with a ceramic bowl—provides the viewer with a sort of picture-in-a-picture, referencing quite pointedly the tradition of illusionary painting. An uneven, red background seems to be rendered in the spirit of Rothko, as an emotional embodiment of color. In this sense, Duce engages not just with traditional landscape and still life representations, but with the innovations of modernist painting. In this exhibition, the tension between illusion and reality is best explored when artists from diverse mediums commingle and their contemporary interpretations of realism emerge together.
“Contemporary Realism” is on view at Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, Connecticut, Oct. 23–Nov. 16, 2014.