Review of Photorealism, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Photorealism is currently on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 30 March. The exhibition is the first major survey of the niche movement in the UK. The photorealist works exhibited synergise the visual aesthetics of painting and photography providing windows into clichéd Americana which seep into the realms of hyperrealism and focus on a sporadic variety of banalities as subject matter.

Upon entering the space the audience is confronted by a series of purple/blue walls – these violently grip the large canvases that shyly excrete pale colours of the Middle-America townscapes. Rod Penner’s 212 House with Snow (1997/8) calmly depicts a painfully normal American white single story building. The deadened grass on the front lawn is partially masked by retreating snowfall. The house’s features are uncharacteristic and futile; the windows darkened by the absence of life – a quality that is frivolous through the work, as the frozen trees echo the same absence of life. Penner’s use of undetectable brushwork – that, and the far from original portrayal of American life – draws the viewer in and is echoed by Richard Estes’ Nedick’s (1970). In this piece Estes, one of the pioneers of the Americana photorealism, projects the viewer’s gaze to the hustle and bustle of an ordinary New York day from a diner. Splashes of chrome haphazardly amalgamate with the fauvist overtones of independent advertising in a uniquely fun and grotesque manner obstructing the realities of everyday life that slips through just out of reach of the viewer. As a result of the works examining Americana, the observer is transposed to a world of fantasy and freedom, the open road, charged by the recurring films that have mythologised the land of the free and the great.

The seemingly more contemporary stance on photorealism, hyperrealism, offers a broader range of subject matters to contend with and incorporates the principles of photorealism extended into the digital age. By this, the works deploy an aesthetic that is “hyper” real, almost too real, so much so that when viewing it one is confronted by ambivalence towards its aesthetics and purpose. Peter Maier’s Gator Chomp (2007) is a prime example of this. A highly cropped image of a pickup truck sits lazily at the forefront of the image. The gloss paint reflects the soring heat of the day and intensity of the unadulterated midday sky. Also reflected is a contorted image of another pickup truck, this time bright red with the bonnet open. The impact of the way the pain has been delivered is insatiable. Like a salivating dog, one is gripped to the point of asphyxiation by its realism. Every curve, every glint of sunlight speaks with an authority like no other medium can deliver. Yet, the instant in which one is swept up by its power and prowess one is inextricably released by the boundaries of the canvas – left bewildered and in a suspended position between dissatisfaction and awe.

Photorealism, until 30 March, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH.

Words: Will Davie

1. Don Eddy, Untitled (4 VWs) (1971), Acrylic on canvas, 167 x 241cm, F. Javier Elorza, Image © Don Eddy, Photo © 2012 foto gonzalo de la serna.