LOS ANGELES — Once photography took over the role of depicting reality in the mid-19th century, painters faced the question of what to paint. As new styles from Impressionism to Abstraction flowered, the dominant approach was to avoid anything the camera could record.
Still, artists who stuck with recognizable images continued to paint and exhibit their work - without the respect of modern art's movers and shakers.
An exhibition opening at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles shows that these painters of so-called representational art have finally been brought back into the fold - and that the art world has finally shed the notion that a single style defines a "serious" artist.
"The Undiscovered Country" examines the role of representational painting in a postphotographic world by looking at 65 works by 23 painters from the United States and abroad over the past four decades.
This is not the straightforward landscape and formal portrait that dominated art for so many centuries. Instead, it's a concentrated effort by artists to come to terms with a world suffused with real-world imagery - and find a new role for realistic painting within it.
The exhibition's title draws on Hamlet's musing about the afterlife and applies it to painting's unlikely persistence after photography should have killed it.
"These are not artists who are in denial about the impact or presence of photography," says curator Russell Ferguson. In fact, many of them appropriate photographic images in their work to make a statement about the differences between painting and photography.
For example, in a 1964 untitled work, Gerhard Richter painted over a photograph of two smiling children. One of the faces has been slathered in thick, pink-and-white paint strokes as if to say, "Look at me now, you can still recognize me but there is more going on," says the curator.
The overpainting is "both an expression of the futility of painting and evidence of its persistence," Ferguson writes in a companion book also titled "The Undiscovered Country."
Such a concise show is by definition not encyclopedic, says the curator. But this selection of works illustrates various approaches modern artists have taken to the genre's major themes through the ages, from history painting and allegory to landscape and portraiture.
History painting was once considered the highest form of painting, says Ferguson. Photography, with its ability to capture a historical moment in a flash, has challenged the painter to capture history in new ways, he says.
"Souvenir I," a massive work (9 by 12 feet) on the scale of traditional history paintings, tackles the issue of civil rights with what Ferguson calls an arms-length approach. A winged figure in black looks out from the canvas. He is surrounded by objects of mourning - flowers, food, and a banner with photos of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers that carries the words, "We Mourn Our Loss."
This phrase applies to the actual loss of the historical figures, but it also refers to a sadness over the loss of painting as a meaningful tool to reflect on historical moments. The painting deals indirectly with history, but also becomes an allegory "about the lack of confidence in painting's ability to deal directly with history anymore," says Ferguson.
If there is a single quality that sets modern representational painting apart from photography, he says, it is absorption, "the ability to go deep into a single moment and be rewarded by the complexity of that moment."
Joan Agajanian Quinn, a collector, says this is the quality she looks for in the works she buys. "It's a work that you can spend time with and go deeper and deeper and find more meaning and beauty each time you do," she says.
She points to the canvas she loaned for the show, "Hand Holding a Firing Gun" made by Vija Celmins in 1964. The gray canvas depicts a smoking gun at the moment the bullet leaves the barrel. "I can sit and look at the image and it has all sorts of meaning for me," says Ms. Quinn.
"Good painting will never die because this is what it does," says Los Angeles gallery owner Carole Wells Vanier, who is here for the show opening. "It matters less what it depicts; what's important is the depth and concentration in the imagery."
Today, if artists use recognizable images at all, they add an ironic or symbolic twist; sincerity is often dismissed as kitsch. Despite this, a certain optimism remains about the importance of painting itself - as does a resistance to doing things the way they've always been done, Ferguson says.
"Nobody feels that they are being told what they can and can't do as an artist anymore. The whole world of painting has become essentially pluralistic. If they want to use traditional oil paints, they can," he says. "It's not so much the medium anymore as what they do with it."