REALISM in art has been around for hundreds of years. Moving in and out of fashion over the course of the 20th century, it has never completely disappeared. It is sometimes said to celebrate the material world. But there are all kinds of realist movements today - Photo-Realism, trompe l'oeil, hard-edge, Neo-Realism, Hyper-Realism, among others. There are some realist artists, however, who are working with something more than merely the appearances of objects, people, and places. Light, color, and metapho rical relationships of objects in a painting may point to meaning that moves beyond a simple reflection of the world as we (or the artist) see it. Universal significance may arise out of the highly personal choice of objects in such work.
So-called new realism is identified with a cool, detached, even antiseptic view of reality. And while Colorado artist Scott Fraser is clearly linked to new realism in his clean lines, precision technique, and strong compositions, his work is more open to interpretation, brimming with mystery and layers of meaning, all exquisitely realized in oil paint.
Picture this: A funny old chair covered in red brocade sits in quiet dignity against the studio wall. Above it is a painting of three fishermen in a tempest-tossed boat. Beside it is a broom. In front of it is a length of electric cord and a battered running shoe. The armchair itself holds a stuffed fish. It takes a moment to see the wit of this scene in Mr. Fraser's "Three Fishermen" - the placement of the fish corresponds humorously to the efforts of the three fishermen in the painting-within-the-paint ing, and the oddity of the shoe and the cord registers slowly. The colors are rich and warm, the light dramatic and beautiful, and the handling of paint classically elegant.
The fact that the armchair belonged to Fraser's grandparents, as did the stuffed fish, is not apparent to most viewers. Yet that fact introduces a note of sentiment - genuine feeling as opposed to sentimentality, a deliberate attempt to exploit the viewer's emotions. Fraser says he wanted to preserve the chair, which is beginning to deteriorate, to give it further life. He loved his grandparents and has many happy childhood memories associated with the chair. Yet, he eschews sentimentality, and the piece
is almost solemn in its formal dignity. The precision of the chair is realism, the painterly approach to light as it glances off the wall and the floor, may indicate that something unusual is going on. Fraser's subtle twist of humor and the casual incongruity of the objects, though, assure the viewer that something unusual is going on. We know there is more here to discover, more to explore.
THINKING about the metaphors of Fraser's work is one of the great pluses - the fun - of viewing it. He likes to paint still lifes - to paint from life, as he puts it. And the objects he chooses (rocks, feathers, fruit, eggs, tools) bring into the interior of his studio the outdoors, as well as his own childhood memories and the favored belongings of people he loves. He won't be pinned down too closely about the meaning of these objects, because he wants to leave room for the viewer's own interpretation.
Some symbolism is clear enough to offer the viewer an almost instant take on the mystery of the painting, but there is always something more - something private that we can guess at only as we view the work. "Metronome," for example, features several eggs, one teetering on the tip of the metronome itself. Another broken shell lies nearby. The timing device has been stopped, a string attached and pinned to the table. It doesn't take much imagination to guess that the piece is about the fragility of human life, the force of time, and the beauty of the moment. What isn't so clear is that the painter's wife had been through a difficult illness, and Fraser stopped time for her. The eggs, he says, represent the life cycle and resurrection.
The serene surfaces of the painting often belie the strong issues of life that Fraser deals with. Incongruities and odd juxtapositions (dried fossil-like fish "swim" on a torn sheet of ruled notebook paper or an arrow pierces three lemons) make eccentric dances across his canvases. Despite the stillness of color and light (the very nature of the still life), despite the precision of his technique, Fraser's paintings flail with life.
SOMETIMES we feel movement arrested, frozen as it has just happened. Even in his less successful paintings, the objects - especially the most fragile - carry a mysterious significance. Yet Fraser doesn't spend too much time working out symbolic meaning. In fact, he lets it take care of itself - bringing compositions together largely intuitively, rather than deliberately.
"I find that sometimes when objects are placed together," he wrote me, "they may resonate [in a way] I can't quite explain, and that subtle mystery and resonance is what I'm after."
Walking around his immaculate studio, I found many of the objects that appear in his paintings still arranged in tiny theaters - shadow boxes, really. I am reminded a little of the boxes of artist Joseph Cornell and recognize that, indeed, there are surreal elements in some of the paintings, if only in terms of the oddness of his juxtapositions.
In one work in progress, Fraser depicts a musical score by Olivier Messiaen, against which he has painted a butterfly. The music carries references to birds, angels, and other winged creatures. The small piece is life-size and even at this stage, so perfectly painted I have to get in close to see if the taped edges of the score are real tape or trompe l'oeil painting. It's paint.
I like thinking about Fraser's work, about the humane qualities so much of it radiates. Nothing in his world is wasted: Bones rarely seem to represent death but, like the fossil-like fish, are recycled into lively new art. I like the games he plays with the eye, the quiet humor. In "Rock, Paper, Scissors," Fraser plays with the literal objects of the children's hand game. The various textures, shapes, and light-reflecting qualities of the objects make the viewer think about the game, and the painting res onates in an amusing way.
Fraser studied at the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1970s when abstraction was all the rage. He tried abstract work, but aside from teaching him a lot about composition, it held little appeal for him. It was soon evident that he was a deeply committed realist. He moved gradually from egg tempera ("too rigid") to acrylics ("too unnatural") to oil.
Living and studying in Germany, he had the opportunity to study the Old Masters. He was drawn to the richness of color, the depth that only oil can achieve, and he switched then permanently to oil. He works on masonite because he prefers the hard surface to the softer canvas. And he gessos the back of the masonite too, so water cannot get in and the paintings will last like canvas.
FRASER rarely works with the human figure. Sometimes a self-portrait may appear in a still life. "Reflections," for example, includes a portrait of the artist holding his pet cockatoo reflected in a vase. For a while, he did marvelous landscapes of the farmland around his home in Longmont, Colo. "I loved them," he says, though he doesn't do them anymore. "I know the landscape very well. But when I was doing them, the public wanted only them from me. I was working from photographs in order to get the deta il and the light. I wanted to work from life - to me it's just more exciting. I'm learning more right now working from life."
He scrounges around in his father's garage for the objects of his still lifes. His father is a collector of odd objects, worthless to some people but fascinating treasures to others. Fraser then plays with ideas until something definite takes shape in his head. That's when he sets up his composition and jumps right in to paint.
"I do have a real fascination with light," he says. "Light is not a color - you paint all the light that reflects off of the different surfaces."
He points out how a piece like "A Study in White," which features white eggs and a white paper plate on a white cloth with a (more or less) white ruler is really all about color and light. Elegant and full of light, "A Study in White" radiates delicate color, subtle and intricate.
It is easy to see why when Fraser speaks of Vermeer, he is hushed in admiration for the simplicity and perfection of his work.
"I get great satisfaction looking at what I'm painting and trying to reproduce it as best I can. Looking at the subject, analyzing the light. Trying to get looser - trying to get it right with fewer brush strokes - trying to say what I have to say with incredible accuracy."
Fraser paints the ordinary objects of daily life. He paints them with extrordinary skill. His palette is refined and austere. Following a long tradition of still-life painting, reinterpreted in strictly contemporary terms, his work fixes moments of time in paint. But the greatest pleasure in savoring his work is the quiet joy he manages to evoke so often, the sense of the importance and meaning of common things. This is in part his answer to the nihilism of so much contemporary art and thought.
* 'Illusions of Reality,' a solo exhibition of Scott Fraser's work, will be on display at the Susan Duval Gallery in Aspen, Colo., until Sept. 9.