Realism

by cjdown

Untitled (study for The Pit), 2006

Realism has been on my mind in the last year or so. I have been fighting with myself in my journal about whether or not some notion of realism is at stake in my practice. I have produced long justifications for why it doesn’t matter to me, but if that were really the case I suspect it wouldn’t come up as an issue. Because I use photographic sources, people often mistake my work as “realist”. In fact, I use photographic sources more like “found”, all-over compositions than as a reference for how things “really” look. The conflation of photography and realism poses an obstacle to understanding both terms, as evidenced by the common usage of “photo-realism” as proof of technical skill in painting (and drawing), regardless of whether the image derives from a photo.

The notion of realism is complicated by photography. Although it is true that photos normally “look like” the things in the real world that the grains of silver salt or pixels of a photograph conspire to represent, it is a mistake to assume that the function of the photograph is mimetic (or imitative). For me, this would imply a specific type of intentionality which is absent from the mechanisms of photography. Photography is literally “light writing”, an “emanation” of light, as Roland Barthes says, reflected from an object and captured on a receptive ground. The authority of photographic representation is premised on it being a mechanical recording of the object/person/place pictured, without the need for the intervention of an author. Photographs don’t imitate so much as re-present, or reproduce. This is why we have passport photos instead of passport paintings. In other words, the realism of photography is not in any way dependent on the skill of the photographer, the way that it is for hand-made images.

Of course, photographs are made by photographers, whose subjectivity provides the impetus for the photo to begin with, and who do intervene on all sorts of levels in the construction of the image. The point is that photographs don’t imitate the appearances of reality; these appearances are byproducts of a mechanical and chemical (or digital) process. Conceivably, photos could be made to imitate the style of other photos (for example, the followers of Ansel Adams, or the appropriations by Sherrie Levine of Walker Evans’ prints) but not to imitate reality. Their fidelity to “actual” appearance is a condition of the medium that must be consciously manipulated to be overcome (see for example, the work of Aaron Siskind, Man Ray, or Jeff Wall).

Jeff Wall, Flooded Grave, 1998–2000

In painting, by contrast, realism (or illusionism, naturalism or verisimilitude) is utterly arbitrary and dependent on convention. This is obvious from the way that the level of realistic representation can shift easily from artist to artist, from work to work, century to century. Even the meaning of the term realism is contingent on the context in which it is used: is Courbet more real than Velazquez? Lucian Freud more real than Caravaggio?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598

The academic tradition of realism depended on the ability of the artist: to mobilize the various conventions of mimetic technique such as shading, perspective and correct anatomy; to produce a formal arrangement that gave the illusion of three dimensional reality; and which “corrected” nature toward an abstracted ideal. Realistic rendering as a guarantee of skill and quality, and as a request from the artist to viewer for admiration of that skill, comes, in large part, from this tradition.

William Bouguereau, Admiration, 1897

The realism of Caravaggio or Courbet by contrast, was based on a refusal to idealize in order to produce works that were more closely related to an empirical experience of the world. These ideas are a prelude to modern concepts of documentary photography.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50

The empirical tradition is one that I have always felt a strong affinity with. The realism that I value has more to do with an un-idealized truth-telling than skillful rendering of appearances. My internal conflict on the question of realism in my own work has to do with my nagging doubts about how often it actually measures up to the truth, or how easily it falls for ingratiating tricks.

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