A few years ago, the artist Robert C. Jackson decided to write a book about contemporary realist painting. He chose 19 fellow artists whom he considered the most interesting, and instead of writing about them from his own point of view, he decided to interview them and let them explicate their own work. He also interviewed himself, bringing the total to 20. In 2014, the results were published in book form, along with reproductions of all the artists’ work, under the title Behind the Easel. The Pennsylvania-based Jackson, at 52 a senior and much-respected figure in the world of representational painting, had created a sort of democratic manifesto for contemporary realism, and now his book has become the basis of an exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, “Truth and Vision: 21st Century Realism,” which opens on October 22 and runs through January 22.
Margaret Winslow, curator of contemporary art at the Delaware Art Museum, says that the idea for the exhibition came to her after the museum acquired one of Jackson’s paintings. “I realized that the museum had not presented a contemporary representational art show in quite a while, and I saw that there’s increasing public support for representational painting,” she says, citing The Representational Art Conference, a yearly event which began in 2012, as an example. She also points out that the Delaware Art Museum has a long tradition of supporting representational painting, in particular the Brandywine tradition, which began with Howard Pyle’s school in Wilmington and Chadd’s Ford, Pa., at the turn of the 20th century and continues today in the Wyeth family.
The work on view in the exhibition is quite diverse, and despite the “realist” label, much of what it depicts can’t be found in ordinary life. Take, for example, Robert Jackson’s Enough With the Bubbles (2015). Painted expressly for this show, it gives us a sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party attended by multicolored balloon animals feasting on lobster, shrimp cocktail, and oysters while one of them exuberantly blows soap bubbles from a pipe. Each detail of the composition is rendered naturalistically, with keen attention to detail, from the food to the balloons to the upturned wooden soda crates that serve as a table. What Jackson has done is to take what are basically still life objects, each one quite sane and everyday in itself, and combine them in a way that breathes a bizarre, hallucinatory kind of life into them (he may also be making fun of Jeff Koons, but that can’t be proved).
“Truth and Vision” is full of still lifes of various kinds, many of which can be considered trompe l’oeil. This particularly American art tradition also has a local connection—one of its greatest 19th-century exponents of trompe l’oeil painting, Jefferson David Chalfant, lived and worked for his whole career in Wilmington, Del. Alan Magee paints arrangements of smooth stones placed on a flat surface, a classic trompe device to create uncertainty in the mind of the viewer as to whether he or she is looking at a very slightly three-dimensional collection of objects or a completely flat rendering thereof. In Aphorism, an acrylic on canvas from 2010, Magee gives us only the stones, arranged in a pattern that could be random. In Treasury (2009), stones have been artfully combined with other objects to make a humanoid creature that lies on top of a handwritten letter and a manila envelope that appears taped to the background, with trinkets scattered across the whole thing. Winslow considers Magee to occupy “an interesting place between trompe and still life.”
Jackson has contributed some classically trompe paintings to the show, and like Enough With the Bubbles, they use humor as a major ingredient. Looking at Art (2014) plays the old trompe trick of tacking pieces of paper to a vertical board, as in the “letter rack” paintings of John F. Peto. But instead of letters we get those postcards of artworks that museum shops sell by the thousands—Chuck Close, Richard Diebenkorn, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Wayne Thiebaud, Giorgio Morandi, they’re all there, inviting the viewer to “name that painting.” Hanging over one of the postcards is a pair of 3-D glasses, in winking acknowledgement of the illusionistic game being played. And in Mr. Rothko, Mr. Johns, Meet Mr. Jackson (2013), Jackson ingeniously creates art-historical references out of trompe l’oeil elements. Other artists in the show who use trompe l’oeil techniques are Will Wilson, whose Infrastructure (2012) is an updated version of the classic back-of-the-framed-canvas view, and Scott Fraser, whose Lemon Fall (2015) does the peeled citrus thing—a staple of European still life from the 17th century on—but with a twist.
Figure painting—one of the classic trio of representational art, along with still life and landscape—also figures prominently in “Truth and Vision.” Steven Assael’s Passengers (2009) actually combines two of these genres. It shows three young people asleep in what appears to be a train car; through the window glows a sublime Hudson River School-like landscape. But is it really a window? It might be a painting hanging on a wall, and the three figures may be snoozing in a room at home instead of being bound on a journey. As with so many of the pictures in this exhibition, Passengers is enigmatic, realist but not quite realistic. Paul Fenniak paints moments that could be snapshots of real life but that nonetheless have an unsettling, ambiguous quality. In Departure (2012), a woman pauses on a wooden stair by a picket fence. It’s either dusk or night, and a pale light catches her in a beam that sets her off from the surrounding gloom. Is she about to leave that house forever, and if so, why? Is one of the RVs in the background about to carry her away to a nomadic existence? Impossible to say. Theme Park Patron (2014), is a bit weirder but still plausible; the woman strapped to a ride may just be enjoying being high up over the amusement park, or she may be stuck up there, unable to resist. There is an awkwardness about her posture that suggests something is not quite right.
The Delaware Art Museum’s broad survey shows that representational painting is alive and well. The resurgence of this approach to art has been going on in the U.S. since the 1960s, when a reaction against the austerity of abstraction set in, and artists found that viewers, in some very deep way, crave images of people, objects, and scenes that they can recognize from their own visual experiences. Whether the paintings are true to everyday life or visionary and fantastical (what Winslow calls “imaginative realism”), they gratify this need while affording the artists a chance to make full use of their technical skills.
“There’s been so much conversation and scholarship about the trajectory of representational painting,” says Winslow, “which of course has been with us since the Paleolithic period, re-examining the impact of Abex, Minimalism, and conceptual art. I think that there has been a shift back to representation. In this portrait-heavy environment that we’re in, in regard to social media, it’s an interesting time to embrace representation.”
By John Dorfman
Published, September 2016 issue