Realism: alive, well, attracting exceptional talent

A CLUSTER of excellent recent shows by realists of various ages and backgrounds proves conclusively that carefully observed and faithfully transcribed representational art is both here to stay and capable once again of attracting exceptional talent. Unfortunately, the overall reaction to these exhibitions also indicates that little serious attention is being paid to the larger issues raised by them. The public tends to respond to such work on the basis of affection or nostalgia for the subjects depicted -- or the ``accuracy'' of that depiction. And the art community, on the whole, accepts or rejects it largely on the basis of highly subjective standards of creative integrity, or vague notions of what differentiates an ``authentic'' realist vision from an inauthentic one.

Two recent one-man shows, in particular, illuminate this situation: Antonio L'opez-Garc'ia's highly acclaimed retrospective at Marlborough Gallery, and William Beckman's impressive, if somewhat less universally well-received, display of works at the Allan Frumkin Gallery here. Both evidenced sophisticated levels of talent and taste, as well as extraordinary singleness of purpose, and both made a virtue out of what would have been considered, until recently, merely self-indulgent and creatively stultifying technical skills.

In lesser hands, these skills might indeed be just that -- Beckman's, especially, since his manifest themselves in a manner that is cool and clinical and appear, at first look, to define his art and to constitute its raison d'^etre. Such technical brilliance compels us to ask in what way his startlingly lifelike depictions of cows crossing a road, of the artist and his wife, or of expansive rural landscapes, differ substantively from color photographs or old-time Saturday Evening Post covers.

It's a question that can only be answered after we have studied his work and have noted the economy and precision of his draftsmanship, the delicacy of his color, the unobtrusive accuracy of his light, and the deceptive naturalness of his shrewdly planned compositions. Only then do we realize how complex and special Beckman's talents are, and how much art it takes to do what he does with such apparent ease.

Emotionally, however, Beckman remains detached, a condition totally foreign to L'opez-Garc'ia. All of that Spanish artist's awesomely realistic paintings, sculptures, and drawings are charged with intense, if carefully understated, emotion. They convey a mildly melancholy aura that both underscores the realities of human existence and reminds us of its fragility and brevity. Regardless of the subject -- a young woman asleep in a bed, the half-eaten remains of a meal, or a meticulously rendered interior of a bathroom -- L'opez-Garc'ia imbues it with a quality that transmits Old World awareness that eternity can be sensed in even the humblest of objects and that life goes on no matter how mankind responds to it.

The cultural soil from which his art springs is thousands of years old, and holds few, if any, surprises. As a result, his paintings have a timeless, patient quality that carefully avoids extremes of any sort. Since everything is filtered through a sensibility that feels deeply but knows all too well that everything physical it sees, touches, or loves is transitory, nothing in his work is intense or bright. Even his colors are muted and his sunshine diffused, leaving his world bathed in a cool, neutral light that permits us to see clearly, but allows neither romantic nor tragic elaborations.

L'opez-Garc'ia's art, in other words, is essentially philosophical. It views the moment and the individual in the context of the timeless and the eternal. It is wise, humble, compassionate, and gentle. It looks to the past as much as to the present, and is perfectly content to suggest rather than to define.

Beckman's art, on the other hand, exists within a cultural context that is still too young and brash, and too obsessed with discovery to be very much concerned with anything but the challenges of the here and now. His is an art of confrontation and fresh beginnings, of reality perceived as though for the first time and then transformed into art with all its vitality and immediacy intact. Everything about his work is crisp and clear. His color may be subtle, but it is never muted. His light may be unobtrusive, but it is never diffused. And his draftsmanship, unlike L'opez-Garc'ia's, never leaves anything half-revealed or half-said.

In L'opez-Garc'ia and Beckman, then, we have two outstanding realists with strikingly different reasons for working representationally. Both base their art on what they can see and touch, and both go to great lengths to make certain that what they produce precisely resembles the models from which they were drawn. Beyond that, however, they are as different as night and day -- or to be more precise -- as twilight (L'opez-Garc'ia) and very early morning (Beckman).

They are not alone in this, however. No two realists, no matter how faithfully they attempt to transcribe what they see into art, ``say'' exactly the same thing. Too many perceptual, emotional, and attitudinal differences stand in the way. Such art, therefore, must not be approached on the basis of what is depicted, but on the basis of how and why (and, of course, whether) it has been translated into art.

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