The Internet is awash in “look at me!” photos, but a picture of a woman sitting poolside, shown recently on a popular art blog, was weirdly attention-getting. It wasn’t really the long silver gloves and black tights that complemented her silver one-piece, or the robot helmet covering her head, which tilted inquisitively. Maybe it was more because, as part of an advertisement for a master’s degree program in studio art, this image affirmed, in amusing, shorthand fashion, the long-standing notion that an artist’s work should stand out. It should look and be strange somehow—if not bizarre, then at least out of the ordinary.
The new Walker exhibition Lifelike explores a contrary proposition: What if realism is the new radicalism, dull is the new bizarre? In other words, keep the woman poolside, hold the robot helmet? In “Previous Lives,” her essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, curator Siri Engberg writes, “in an age where outlandishness is hard to achieve and shock is relative, the experience of encountering the utterly mundane reimagined through an artist’s careful hand or sly recontextualization can appear striking, even radical.”
Engberg’s idea for Lifelike began to take form several years ago, partly as a product of what she was seeing in galleries and at art fairs such as Frieze, held each fall in London. “It seemed that everywhere I looked, there were young artists engaged with trompe l’oeil realism or photorealism,” she says. “This impulse is definitely in the air right now, I think in part because many artists are wanting to return to old-school studio practice—making things with their hands, spending time and labor on something that will make us take notice of real life from time to time.”
In an era where we are barraged not just by images, but all sorts of visual trickery and technological intervention, both in art and in the world at large, Engberg found this rigorously hand-crafted type of art practice striking. She visited the studios of young artists such as Kaz Oshiro and Matt Johnson, and began thinking about ways that Lifelike could incorporate other generations. “I realized that this brand of working with realism grew out of an impulse that began in the late 1960s among a group of artists who were working concurrently with Pop artists and Photorealists, but were not part of either group.”
These “outsiders” were distinguished by their use of everyday objects and situations as subject matter, as opposed to the flashy commercialism and brand names of Pop Art, or the Photorealists’ slick scenes of Americana. They focused on humdrum routine and ordinary moments: Robert Bechtle’s family eating dinner at a chain restaurant (Fosters Freeze); Alex Hay’s errand at the hardware store (Cash Register Slip); Chuck Close’s snapshot of himself in a moment of boredom (Big Self-Portrait). She found affinities between these artists and another generation that emerged in the late 1980s, including Robert Gober, Charles Ray, and the Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss, whose early sculptures conjured a sense of the uncanny—a feeling of something being not quite right, followed by the realization that what we are seeing is not what we expected, but rather a work of art.
Realism in art is often regarded by critics and art historians as a kind of periodic resurgence, a conservative response to a crisis, such as the Vietnam era or the more recent post-9/11 state of affairs. And yet Engberg curated Lifelike to include works that fully span the intervening decades, from Hay’s giant paper bag of 1968 to Oshiro’s life-size, hand-painted dumpster made last year. Certainly one could argue the past 40-odd years have seen ongoing crises of various kinds, or at least a general sense of instability, but perhaps the persistence of realism in art—rather than its periodic resurgence—is more a reaction to reality itself, which seems to grow ever more mutable.
The Onslaught of “Reality”
The nature of reality and its cousins, truth and authenticity, have all increasingly come into question in recent years as technology has proliferated—and with it, the volume of information, products, and images that we process on a daily basis. The resulting confusion and subjectivity over what or whom to believe is daunting. Statistics get massaged; words and images are taken out of context (or so goes the claim); scientific studies make healthy foods harmful and vice versa; politicians wage increasingly expensive, lengthy, and carnivalesque battles over truth and reality, while striving to up their authenticity quotient. Even reality TV is at the endgame stage where it has migrated off the screen and back into real life, as the news-making antics of the Kardashians and their ilk become nearly inescapable.
The now-common practice of parsing what’s believable (as distinct from what we believe) is reflected in the ways we encounter the artworks in Lifelike. We’re invited to identify artifice, question authenticity, ponder the mysteries of how an artwork was made—and maybe even find a peculiar poetry in things that only seem ordinary. The experience ranges along a spectrum from disturbing to bewildering to curious to amusing to delightful. For instance, the presence of several fake humans residing in the galleries—Ron Mueck’s crouching boy, Evan Penny’s elderly man, and Duane Hanson’s Janitor—can be felt almost before the sculptures are seen. By way of explaining that unsettling feeling, Engberg refers to the work of Masahiro Mori, the roboticist whose influential 1970 essay, “The Uncanny Valley,” explored the extent to which robots may resemble humans. He found that at a certain point humans somewhat paradoxically regard them as not “human” enough: suddenly they become creepy and repulsive.
The tension between the desire to believe and the desire to discover artifice runs through the exhibition: “Many artists have strived to harness this sense of doubt, inviting us to suspend our disbelief until our disbelief becomes quite real,” writes Engberg, an observation that brings to mind the odd charge of pieces such as Jud Nelson’s hyperreal, life-size garbage bag made from marble or Tauba Auerbach’s large painting of crumpled cloth, which goes beyond the hyperreal to become an abstraction. Some of the works that have a totally out-of-scale realism conjure a different type of disquiet. Consider Robert Therrien’s gargantuan steel folding table and its matching folding chairs leaning against the wall, and the nerve-wracking clatter of one of those normal-size chairs falling to the floor.
Ordinary - Not Simple
Because they are straightforward representations of the familiar, the artists’ process in making these works affects how we regard them, especially as they involve feats of craftsmanship and human labor that are rare in a post-industrial, developed economy. Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), a jar of 1,000 “sunflower seeds” by artist Ai Weiwei, relates to his massive installation of 100 million ceramic seeds at the Tate Modern in London. Then there’s the singular delicacy of Yoshihiro Sudo’s tiny weeds growing out of the crack between the wall and the floor, or the life-size bee fabricated by Tom Friedman from clay, wire, fuzz, hair, plastic, and paint, which are awe-inspiring on a whole different level.
Along with those works, many other pieces in Lifelike affirm the enduring influence of Marcel Duchamp on a huge swath of contemporary art. Engberg calls these “post-Duchampian remade readymades.” Like Duchamp’s urinal, bottle rack, and bicycle wheel, they cause a double-take as everyday objects imported to a gallery setting, but they are also handcrafted replicas of such. Some works are almost purely playful, such as Maurizio Cattelan’s tiny set of elevators or Leandro Erlich’s piece that transports the viewer into a Buenos Aires subway. Lifelike’s strains of realism and their effects on us are intriguing in their multifariousness. For instance, while Charles Ray is striving for a dizzying level of exactitude in photographing himself rendered as a mannequin, Robert Gober incorporates strategic and very subtle signs of the handmade into works such as a bundle of newspapers; yet both artists endow the commonplace with strange powers when reproducing it as art.
Regardless of medium, all of the works in the show hark back to those realistic renderings in paint from the 1960s as a simple call for attention to be paid, a prompt to turn away from the ceaseless flow of info and images and focus on one quietly extraordinary thing. In finding the fantastic in the everyday, we position ourselves to discover something akin to the “new kind of poetic reflection,” which Engberg says that band of ’60s-era painters sought as a modest undercurrent to Pop art flamboyance. She also goes back even further in modern history to consider the notion of “magic realism” from German critic Franz Roh, who wrote in 1925 how artists, in creating heightened representations of reality, could invite the kind of “inquiry [that] could become spiritual, transcendent, and thus propel us back into the world of our imaginations.”
In this sense, the realism of Lifelike is aligned more with conceptual art than with Pop or Surrealism. The artists in this exhibition have chosen all-too-familiar forms as a place to embed ideas about process, perception, and things more intangible. In doing so, they’ve staked out fresh territory for contemplation that is in plain sight—if we take the time to look.