Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why is Photorealism Hugely Popular?

One of the things I've noticed lately is the immense popularity of photorealistic works online. I believe this is related to how photorealism conjures up the "real" while simultaneously negating it due to the materials involved; ie, this is a drawing or a painting, it can't be real. Apart from the technical virtuosity of many of these works, there is an enigma at play beneath the surface; and there is something about the works that mesmerizes us.

Escape into Life, the online arts journal I edit, receives surges of traffic around photorealist artists such as Richard Estes, Dirk Dzimirsky, Denis Ichitovkin, Don Gore, Eric Zener, and Alyssa Monks. Another arts blog by Alice at My Modern Met, covers photorealistic and hyper-realistic art frequently. Some of Alice's most popular entries include, "Hyper-Realistic Acrylic Body Painting," "21 Mindblowing Hyperreal Paintings," and "Photorealistic Pencil Drawings by Paul Lung."

When we look at these works, we see some similarities in technique and method. For example, images of water are common in hyperrealistic paintings and drawings. Eric Zener chooses solely to focus on pools and individuals diving in or suspended underwater. In an interview I had with Zener last year, he described his method:
I take photos of models in the water and then use them as a reference to make my drawing. Usually a lot changes but it gives me a good starting point. Then I paint an underpainting in grey/blue scale. After that I paint from the farthest point back to the foreground.

Many of the paintings by Alyssa Monks are situated in bathrooms or behind shower doors. We are presented with a human face behind glass, steam clouding the glass, and drops of water blurring the picture. This play of barriers against the direct human image heightens the drama of the "real"--we see the human figure, but we cannot directly approach/access it.

Another example is Dirk Dzimirsky's Drawn Face VI (below). Here we are drawn to the frenzied motion of water, the splatter of drops and the trajectories down and off the man's face. The water is so pronounced that it seems to take on another form, like transparent oil. The heaviness of the liquid reinforces its impact. Just as the drawing enhances the qualities of water, the image heightens the reality of being drenched, producing a simulacrum of experience and sensation.

Another technique used in photorealistic works is reflection. Like water, reflection deflects the "real," fragments the "real," complicates the "real," and thus heightens it. Richard Estes is a contemporary master of this technique, often using reflections from city buildings and the play of sunlight on various types of glass, to create a multidimensional effect. In The L Train (below), we are presented with a dead-on view through multiple layers of glass. The reflections from each panel create distorted, but corresponding images in different quadrants of the painting, while the numerous steel bars at various angles further break up the picture we are looking at.
If the Photorealism heralded decades ago by Chuck Close, Ralph Goings, Richard Estes, and Audrey Flack was a reaction against Surrealism and Pop Art, then these artists seem to have presaged our contemporary moment. The popularity of photorealistic works right now says something about our needs and desires as humans in the 21 century.

Consider the introductory paragraph in David Shield's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:
My intent is to write an ars poetic for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconsciously connected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger chunks of "reality" into their work.
While photorealism in art has been around since the late 1960's, there is a curious resurgence of interest around these paintings and I wonder if it is connected to Shields's thesis. He goes on to describe the "hunger" contemporary culture has for "the lure and blur of the real."
Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the "real," semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all fabrication.
In a convincing argument, made up entirely of quotations and passages, many of them not even the author's own, Reality Hunger uses examples such as the popularity of reality TV shows, the ascendancy of the memoir, and sampling in hip hop to show our lust for reality-based art. Most of us would agree that reality TV is not art, but it reflects a trend in culture where we are more attracted to the "real" than the blatantly fictitious.

Photorealistic works can thus seem to cast an enchanting spell upon our reality-hungered lives. They are like drugs, providing the greatest visual impact, giving us the thrill of the "illusion of reality." Shields writes:
The body gets used to a drug and needs a stronger dose in order to experience the thrill. An illusion of reality--the idea that something really happened--is providing us with that thrill right now. We're riveted by the (seeming) rawness of something that appears to be direct from the source, or at least less worked over than a polished mass-media production.

More Essays . . .


Alyssa Ast said...

Wow this is great. Great information and great images!

Brenda said...

Photorealism is a good term. These paintings look like photos and perhaps what we are attracted to is their technical virtuosity. That they are paint, are hand-crafted slowly and with care, rather than through the snap-shot of film or pixelated image.

But like the photograph that they emulate, they are not 'reality.'

How often, for instance, does a person 'look like' their photographs? In my experience, very rarely. Hardly ever have I seen someone's photos looking exactly like they do in real life. It's partially turning three dimensions into two, yes, but also the way the framing of the photograph shifts and changes the subject matter into its own format.

These artists are incredibly talented, yes, but they are creating art out of art, already once removed from 'reality.' If you get the gist of my meaning...

(I do understand you were implicitly comparing not to 'reality' so much as that construed by the media and by the camera and then perhaps also the art that does not call itself photorealistic.)

Lethe said...

Alyssa-- Thank you!

Brenda--I like the dimension you're bringing to this discussion. Very interesting comments. You're absolutely right that photographs are a representation of reality, and not any closer to reality than perhaps a visual painting. I like your thinking along these lines.


Roy said...

Interesting. Thanks.

I had a thought (you smelled something burning?) that the photorealistic paintings I've seen don't seem to have a purpose other than to "look real." Would they be of any interest at all if they were really photographs? That is, if you applied the same criteria for quality or "artness" to them that you would an actual photograph?

( I don't need to tell you that I am not much of an art student . . . please excuse my jumping in here with no qualification. Anyway, still interesting to me.)

Lethe said...

You don't need to be an art student to join in the discussion! That's a good point you bring up . . . about them serving no other purpose than to "look real".


SKIZO said...


Lee Ann said...

I just ran across this blog, sorry for jumping in so late! I am intrigued that you are seeing such popularity with the photorealism - my artist friends are all very anxious not to be associated with it! I wrote a blog post about it Is Realism Dead? Or Just Really Ill?

In fact, one of the things that Brenda mentioned above, about people not usually looking like their photograph is something I never really analyzed, but the quote in my blog post about how in real life you never see everything in your field of vision with the same degree of clarity would explain that to me. In my mind, that's the problem with photorealistic art - it takes away your differing degrees of focus.

Robin said...

This is very interesting and in my art sales I see the reality of this. My originals or abstracts sit in the gallery while my Threadscapes created from photographs sell repeatedly.

Thank you for such a comprehensive look at this perspective.

Lethe said...


That's interesting that you see a parallel to my argument in your sales.


DEB said...

Stunning images! Wonderful post.

gilbert grace said...

I am not so sure it is a positive reaching for more realism rather a negative response to so much "warmed over surrealism" as applied by the low-brow - oh so ironic - end of post-modernism.

Roger Cardinal makes the point in Outsider Art, many of the surrealists were or went mad (idealising the art of the mad). First step mania for the ocd - fervid imaginative period - then a repulsion and concerted effort to regain the real - exhausted rerun of normalcy.

When artworlds take upon themselves manufacturing epochal group think with known outcomes art effect as consumable psycholgical product is the result. Next will be a return to functional pattern and decoration.

Guenevere said...

Hello, I have been researching Photorealism, and wondering about the attraction to it.

In my experience as an artist it seems that some people (not all) prefer my realistic paintings. I have been taking note of who likes what among my friends. I find that it really comes down to the type of person.
The attractions may stem from understanding the painting. If it is very real looking you don't have to guess at what the artist is saying or expressing. The painting then becomes an expression of skill in rendering. It may not even matter what the subject is, just that the viewer can respect the time it took to make.

Thanks for the great blog post.