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Unconventionally Real: Nine Artists Discuss Their Work in Lifelike

Reconsidering Realism

Can the use of realism—something rendered with a visually accurate relationship to the observed world—be seen as unconventional in the context of contemporary art? This core question of the exhibition Lifelike can be addressed through many of the works on view. In these excerpts from the exhibition catalogue, nine artists—Ai Weiwei, Vija Celmins, Susan Collis, Keith Edmier, Robert Gober, Kaz Oshiro, Peter Rostovsky, Paul Sietsema, and Mungo Thomson—offer a glimpse into their work process and the notion of radical realism.

Paul Sietsema, Untitled ink drawing, 2009

©Paul Sietsema. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

I agreed to have my picture taken by a photographer who was shooting Los Angeles artists…. I forgot about the image until I came across it while looking up another LA artist. My photo popped up next to theirs, and I dragged it to my desktop without thinking. I opened it at some later point and zoomed in as I usually do when looking at clipped images, as I’m always interested in the pixel/ grain structures. I found the pixel formation to be compelling and almost immediately saw that the form could easily be building blocks for something that is handmade. I liked the idea of making a self-portrait that was actually an image taken by someone else, put into the slipstream of the Internet—a highly public and arguably impersonal place—and then appropriated back by me…. The drawing was built up, based on the structure of the pixels, and it was pieced together and not laboriously so, probably more meditatively…. For me, any form of rendering is simply about invisibility, about having 100% variability in where you place information in an image.

—Paul Sietsema

Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2009

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Photo courtesy Carolina Nitsch

I think people will have the impression that they are real sunflower seeds, but they are fake seeds. It takes them a while to adjust their minds. They would always say, “Is that possible?” Then they would pick up a few. Some would even want to put them in their mouth to try.

I always think art is a tool to set up new questions. [Creating] a basic structure [that] can be open to possibilities is the most interesting part of my work. I want people who don’t understand art to understand what I am doing.

Normally porcelain production requires around 30 stages. You cannot really escape from it. The sunflower seeds are made in a town called Jingdezhen; it is about 1,000 kilometers from Beijing. In the old times, the whole town made porcelains for the emperor’s court. For generations people refined the shape of a bowl or a vase; it was a very fixed language.

We have been working here [in Jingdezhen] for five or six years, to try and find out the possibilities of applying the old technique to modern contemporary language. Because of the quantity—it takes 1,600 people and more are involved in the project in this town—that means almost everyone knows someone who is making “sunflower seeds.” Even the taxi drivers talk about it, but nobody understands it. If you tell them it is for an exhibition, nobody understands why you have to accept this.

The actual production is very much like the old times. You have a group of people working together—different people take different positions. When it comes to painting, it needs the most people because on every seed, each side takes three to four strokes. The most skillful ones take three strokes; for some it takes four or five.

In the political arena, the paintings always had sunflower seeds. Whenever Chairman Mao comes out there are sunflowers around him. That means Chairman Mao is the sun and all the ordinary people loyal to the party are the sunflowers. Sunflowers supported the whole revolution, spiritually and in material ways.

—Ai Weiwei

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1997

©Robert Gober. Courtesy the artist, New York
Photo: Erma Estwick

At the time that I made this sculpture my psychiatrist was a child psychiatrist. The waiting room or hallway was borderline crummy but also wonderful because there were an equal number of adult-size chairs and child-size chairs, evoking an equanimity that frequently moved me.

As is often the case, I didn’t realize this sculpture’s real life source until well after its completion. I am convinced that for me the visual decisions or ideas happen in oblique, semi-conscious ways. This image or object was the silent companion to my talking cure.

Sometimes the tissues were on a side table or the couch, but the chair, a small wooden one, was always here next to me. In putting the two objects together I thought I was placing adult-size burdens on a child, magnified yet again in the large drain underneath. One time in San Francisco someone asked me what the piece meant. I responded that he should understand what it is physically before worrying about meaning. When you know that the painted tissue box is bronze, you know that it is unnaturally heavy and then the meanings start to flow from the physical thing itself.

—Robert Gober

Vija Celmins, Night Sky #6, 1993

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Purchased with the aid of funds from Harriet and Edson W. Spencer and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1995

I ended up doing this extremely detailed work that I detest, but I have somehow worked myself into this space and I am hoping to work myself out. But I hate to abandon the work that I have cared for for so long…. I am leaving out the comet [from the source photograph] because I can’t stand an event that exciting in there. I had the comet in there but now it is maybe millimeters under [the surface]. I have redone the image many times, on top of each other. I paint it and then I sand it off…. Each time I try to articulate it…. If I lose it, which I often do, then I paint it again, on top of itself. Somehow I think that the image then begins to have a sort of memory in it, even if you can’t see it. It can build up a kind of dense feeling toward the end and then it makes me happy…. I am very suspicious of illusionism, so the space is flat and I like that…. What I’d like for it to do is give a little, so that it makes you want to go in a little bit.

—Vija Celmins

Susan Collis, Refugee, 2007

Courtesy Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York

The series of hand-drawn bags, begun in 2007, don’t rely on any type of precious material; it is almost the opposite, it is more to do with the labor and time expended…. With drawings in particular, there are certain things that feel so personal, like the way you put your pencil on the paper, if it is gestural at all, and so on. How can you give that to someone else to do? So maybe that is another thing about those bags, they are so absolutely ungestural, they are so much about drawing out a grid and filling in the squares. When assistants would come to the studio I used to spend half an hour apologizing to them, saying, “This is what you are going to be doing today, I am so sorry that I thought this up and that you’re going to have to do it!” It feels like bringing somebody into your madness, but they absolutely loved doing them. It is a basic thing, filling in boxes, listening to Radio 4, and just chatting. I used to be there at the end of the day saying, “Right then, it is time to go now,” but the volunteers would say, “I won’t be long; I just want to finish this bit.” There is something very addictive, although that is not quite the right word.

—Susan Collis

Peter Rostovsky, Curtain, 2010

Collection Michael Peterman and David Wilson

What does it mean in Warholian fashion to “want to be a machine,” to long for a kind of inhumanity that has to be constantly performed and repeated? Is this not a radical disavowal of an all too human vulnerability? Can we not read in the mechanical appeals of photorealism a kind of excessive sentimentality, a naïve expressionism that uses the camera and the photograph as a shield against trauma?

And likewise in expressionism’s hyperbolic restatement of its humanity, is there not a silent concession to its opposite, a founding anxiety about inauthenticity, a mortal dread regarding the total triumph of simulation and technology?

However, it is important to stress that these are unfulfilled desires. No photorealist painting completely fools the viewer into the fact that it is machine-made; it entertains the fantasy, much like electronic music. And each autonomous artwork is only a temporary escape, a utopian space, “an orchid in the land of technology,” to borrow a phrase that Walter Benjamin applied to the illusion of reality in film.

What these two positions in fact represent are two negative theologies that stand as sentinels, forever pointing to and away from a traumatically unresolved subject position—a position of the never sufficiently technological, and the never completely human. They are both Romantic positions and should be read as such: as positions of longing and disavowal, not of identity.

Why would this be important to emphasize? Because it answers the familiar question asked to every painter painting photographs. It’s not about the ends, it’s about the means. It’s about the performance of painting that re-states the position, not the photolike product that it yields. In other words, it’s about trying and failing to be a machine. Therein resides the futility and poetic nature of the practice. The failure marks the fragility and evanescence of the subject negatively, knowing that the alternative is to misname, to misrepresent, to conjure the opposite. This poetic is more latent, and seldom acknowledged in art that aspires toward indifference and inhumanity, but I hope that I have shown that every tin man has a heart, just like every photorealist hides an abstract painter.

—Peter Rostovsky

Mungo Thomson, Between Projects, 2001

Courtesy the artist

I think pencils in factories are made with a lead core and two pieces of wood stuck together around it, then paint, eraser, etc. I did a version that was more in line with what I was capable of in my studio at the time, since the piece was so much about art being my “job” now (after getting my MFA and having my first commercial gallery show) and reporting to the studio as if it was an office (not to mention the studio-as-office turn in conceptual art) and hanging around there waiting for inspiration to strike, and making the waiting the inspiration. Hence the title. So I took wooden dowels, sanded them into hexagonal shafts, drilled holes down their centers and dropped fitted leads in with wood glue. Spray-painted the exterior, had a custom stamp made based on pencils I had in the studio (“Sanford Eagle”) and stamped them with black enamel. Hand-fashioned tin fittings for rubber erasers. Then sharpened them and stuck them in the ceiling. There was a high failure rate with all those stages and it took a couple of months.

—Mungo Thomson

Keith Edmier, Bremen Towne, 2006-2007 (detail)

Courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Bremen Towne was an idea I’d been thinking about prior to [my 2008] show at Bard College. It had been floating in my head for a number of years based on the sales brochure of my parents’ home I had obtained around 1999 off of eBay. It was just one of these things I had around…. I didn’t really have the idea of constructing this house back then…. As it turned out, the interior dimensions of my parents’ home from the original blueprints fit directly into one of the galleries at the museum. At that point I started considering it more as an art object, or as a sculpture more than an installation…. The main visual references were family photographs, mostly taken during critical events or holidays or birthday parties. My process involved going through the photo album—everything. They were all pictures of people posing, so I started looking at the spaces [in the background]… I ended up buying the whole decade of both Sears and JCPenney catalogues up until that time, the early ’70s. Through that I was able to identify some products based on visual descriptions or in the family photographs…. I initially went to a place that has all kinds of wallpapers and floorings from other periods, used a lot for movies and things like that. I heard they had thousands of wallpapers. It turned out I couldn’t find the exact wallpaper that was in the house. I guess at that point I started thinking it was more interesting for me to remake it, and to remake it more or less new. I wanted to represent the time element, the moment before the day of the family moving into the new house. It wasn’t supposed to look lived in.

I think I was initially interested in doing that to have some kind of separation from taking a real object that was loaded with personal history or some sentimental thing. It was a way of moving from a subjective to an objective position…. [I was interested] in just thinking about the whole interior of the house itself as a cast, or this negative space. I thought about how the house is essentially the space that shapes us, that shapes oneself…. I think that my reason to make it, or to make almost anything, went beyond just the visual aspects of it, or the idea of re-creating an illusion of the thing. I’ve always been more interested in a certain level of representation or pictorial literalness…. I like words or descriptions like “actual” or “actual scale.” I like the idea of “what is real?”

—Keith Edmier

Kaz Oshiro, Dumpster (Flesh with Turquoise Swoosh), 2011

Private collection Family Hunting, the Netherlands; Courtesy galerie frank elbaz, Paris
Photo: Kaz Oshiro

This dumpster for Lifelike is the fifth that I have made…. I like the dumpster because I can experiment with the idea of abstract painting. I am always interested in the painter’s issue…. I have been trying to find an area where representational painting and abstract painting coexist. With the dumpster, I can simulate or manipulate the idea of abstract painting directly on its surface. The work appears to be representational painting, but I am always thinking of it as abstract painting, with the details of paint drips, dust, and rust…. I see myself as a still life painter who’s trying to be an abstract painter; I think the dumpster kind of shows this transition.

When I paint, I don’t use photographs as a reference…. Everything that I want to paint is done from memory. Since the dumpster is a functional object, there are some important elements that I have to be aware of. I have to take measurements in order to know the physical volume. But sometimes I encounter problems when I try to replicate the shape exactly as an existing dumpster. So I try to combine the details and sometimes I find myself having to simplify the parts…. I don’t know if it is noticeable, but usually dumpsters have metal channels that a forklift can insert into. I’ve omitted that detail from the piece because it was hard to make. F or me, as long as the object I make has a physical volume that is close enough to the real object, then it serves its purpose.

—Kaz Oshiro