It doesn't exist, but it's real

JUST what do we mean by ``realism,'' by the ``real'' in art? Are we referring to how precisely something in a picture resembles a particular place, object, or person? Or is it more a matter of general resemblances, the fact that one combination of shapes, colors, and lines obviously represents a house while another represents a grove of trees? There are other possibilities as well. We could be using these terms to describe a strong aura of authenticity emanating from a painting or print, or because a work seems overwhelmingly ``true to life'' even though it is highly stylized or close to abstract. We could even be doing nothing more than identifying a particular approach to drawing. But whatever our reason for doing so, the very fact that we use these words in reference to a work of art indicates that we see it within a particular, clearly defined context.

What that context is, however, may be difficult to explain to others, especially if it causes us to declare one work more real than another, or a painting executed in ``natural'' colors more realistic than one made in shades of gray. It often is only a matter of communication. We may know what we mean and yet be incapable of convincing anyone else that our reaction is reasonable or correct.

But why should that surprise us? The words ``reality,'' ``realism,'' and ``real'' are powerful verbal tools that must be used carefully and with precision when talking or writing about art. And this is particularly true when discussing the art of the 20th century, which has so long suffered the indignity of being arbitrarily divided between the ``real'' and the ``abstract.''

In the deepest sense, such distinctions are often quite pointless. The art of Mondrian, after all, is no less real (or true) than Wyeth's, despite the fact that we can ``verify'' the reality (or truth) of Wyeth's paintings by comparing them to what we ourselves have seen, and we cannot do the same for Mondrian's because they are abstract and make absolutely no reference to observed physical reality.

Perhaps the answer lies in the word ``physical'' and in the way it qualifies the word ``reality.'' Perhaps we'd be advised to make it clear that when we discuss realism or the real in art, we are referring to physical reality, and not to a reality that is spiritual or emotional.

It helps to understand a bit more clearly that an artist can use elements of physical reality to create a fanciful or idealized image (Bosch, Raphael), or that an illusion of physical reality can be established by nothing more than a few shrewdly chosen and sensitively placed colors and shapes (Turner, Marin).

There are several excellent ``realists'' today whose paintings are as carefully assembled along strictly formal lines as any Cubist study by Gris or Braque. These painters' pictorial reality may superficially resemble ours, but closer study will reveal that precisely rendered and naturalistically arranged objects from the physical world were utilized to validate and to give credence to purely imaginary artistic statements.

The beautifully composed and sumptuously painted pictures of Robert Rasely fall into this category. In each one, the artist's skill at depicting things as they appear to the human eye is put to the service of a provocative formal and thematic imagination to produce images that are both ``real'' and invented.

I doubt, for instance, that the world has ever seen a room quite like the one depicted in Rasely's ``Alpha Room,'' and yet it is convincing both as a place and as a work of art. Everything in it was carefully calculated to give the viewer a powerful sense of physical actuality while also provoking his or her imagination. This effect is exceptionally strong in the original, where the wondrously rich and highly tactile surfaces and the apparently three-dimensional delineation of the various objects create a desire to touch the work to determine just how much of that effect is merely illusion.

This painting, in fact, demands to be touched and held, and fortunately it is small enough -- 271/2 inches by 24 inches -- to be held. To do so is to enter a world in which jewellike painterly effects, sumptuous surfaces, exquisite compositional placements, and a highly romantic sensibility combine to create an image of a place that doesn't exist, but which doesn't seem any the less real for this reason.

The effectiveness of this work extends even to purely structural matters. Imagine for a moment that the black right-hand side of the sunken area in the center were a much lighter color; that the small cupboard at upper center-left lacked the white arch above it; that the metal pan in the lower right corner were lower or darker; or that the tiny sapling beside the pan pointed straight down rather than toward the rug. Small as they might seem, any of these changes would noticeably affect the composition, and all of them -- plus others I haven't pointed out -- would cause the magic and the reality of this picture to disintegrate, and possibly to vanish altogether.

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