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By Joe Basiste



What is contemporary realism? How is its place among art movements? An excellent place to ponder these questions is at the van der Griff Gallery, where the 7th Annual Realist Invitational features over 60 paintings by 36 artists from America and Canada. Ten of the exhibitors are New Mexicans, as this area is a stronghold for traditional painters, figurative artists and even egg tempera buffs.
In overview, this exhibit's broad range of intense works is nearly overwhelming: so many depicted things with all their minutiae crying for attention, As I previewed the show, three curators were dashing back and forth, trying almost desperately to mix and match.

Techniques range from slashing expressiveness to prissy perfectionism. Styles run the gamut from idyllic landscapes and idealized figures to disturbing symbolism and sadomasochistic voyeurism. But all the work rates high in technique ‑ be it perfectionist or bravura.

Several of the artists are in their 20s and most are fairly fresh in their careers. The gallery director, Klaudia Marr, prefers to find emerging artists, saying "this year's artists express a more current view of our society than even last year's exhibitors." If this is so, their contemporaneity is subtle ‑ there are many references to realist traditions all the way back to Vermeer. These are third‑generation realists, if one counts Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close and the late Gregory Gillespie ‑all active in the 1970s ‑ as the first generation. Those artists were reacting to the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism. However, like their antagonists, the first generation realist's paintings were big on conception.

This third generation is comparatively more intimate, more private and refined, and not insistent on big issues. A sense of isolation, sometimes almost hermetic, surrounds their works. As good as most of them are, it's hard to imagine them becoming stars as their often over‑rated predecessors did.
A standout among the obsessive artists is Even Koch, whose female subjects are disquieting, and whose sharp focus flesh is disturbing. "Anonymous" is probably the most original painting in the show. It depicts a middle‑aged woman in an robe open knees to navel. In front of her she holds panties that might have been worn by a teenager of yesteryear. The depiction of her hands is distressingly clinical, not to mention the shave burns on her upper thighs. To the left on a low shelf are a mirror, a box of tissues and a Vermeer book.

Another obsessive is the young Aaron M. Brown, who paints interiors of acidic clarity while the objects therein retain an allusive ambiance. For instance, what could be more palpably absurd than a banana peel draped over a hammer that lies on a porcelain sink? Yet, it is all lovingly depicted.
Two other painters of still‑life enigma are John Rise and William Barnes. Rise is an Albuquerque artist whose works were part of the Albuquerque Museum's exemplary recent survey of 500 years of stilllife. His exaggerated table‑top compositional structures are as tight as any cubist painting. All his rather geometrical objects are rendered, even over‑rendered, into an almost absurd physicality. His ensembles have terrific presence. William Barnes, a gallery regular, paints dreamy quirky objects, wonderfully delicate due to his exquisite casein technique.

Landscapes by David Hines and Ellen Wagoner are bucolic tributes to America's vast terrain. They find the poetry in what might have been unremarkable places. One small cavil: both artists load their foregrounds with myriad little grasses that did not seem worth the effort. At the opposite stylistic extreme are the angst‑ridden works of Geoff Laurence and Michael Karaken. Laurence's people seem raw, exposed, yet still assertive. One hesitates to encounter them. Karaken's huge dark charcoal of a couple sitting on a bed, turned away from each other exudes unease. It would take a brave collector to buy this powerful and depressing image.

Many Santa Fe galleries feature the kind of realism whose romantic and nostalgic styles appeal to a broad range of tourists. There is much rehashing of popular subjects, such as cowboys, Indians and desert landscapes. The van de Griff artists eschew subjects that have become banal through repetition, preferring to use irony or push a personal vision to its limit. In technique they avoid soft focus, bravura brush strokes or the impressionist palette, favoring instead, unrelenting examination. Most of these artists average only five to seven paintings a year. A small, seemingly simple portrait by Anthony Ryder is said to have taken 350 hours. Called "Two Flowers" because of the rose in the woman's hair, it seems odd that this flower is so peremptorily painted; the question of laboriousness casts doubt on an otherwise fine painting.

What is the larger context for this contemporary realism? It might be seen as an art that caters to a conservative materialism, offering affirmation for a consumer society. Conversely, this realism might be interpreted as a reaction to the information glut, reaffirming an alternative intimacy in communing with basics. In any case, while the artists are busy questioning both public and personal meanings, it should not be overlooked that they are simultaneously offering up their own well‑crafted objects to add to our society's insatiable love of possession.

Because of the variety and high quality in the van de Griff survey, this is an excellent opportunity to ponder how artists perceive our bounteous world. Ironically, all these paintings can be accessed at

Basiste is a Santa Fe painter. His views on art appear occasionally in Venue North.



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