Ana Finel Honigman: We’ve been talking almost every day about the Photorealist show since I saw it last week. Yet it always feels to me like we’re talking about two totally different shows. Instead of just reviewing it for ArtSlant, I thought it would be more interesting to tape our conversation and see what we’re actually saying to each other.
David Nicholson: What are we saying?
AFH: Right now, I’m saying that I feel like we saw the same work but responded to it as if it were conversing at us in two completely different mediums. You were responding to the paintings as paintings. And I was seeing them as the illustration of ideas.
DN: That’s not surprising to me.
AFH: I felt like the artists were making paintings but they were intentionally labouring to create something obviously superfluous and meaningless. Therefore there has to be a reason why these boring looking things were made. The only explanation that I can find for these paintings’ existence is that they direct attention to sociological, theoretical or other outside concerns.
DN: What makes you so sure?
"...the artists were making paintings but they were intentionally labouring to create something obviously superfluous and meaningless. "
AFH: Well, I think the most interesting aspect of these paintings, which I forgot before seeing this show, was that they appear more as outtakes than examples of the type of photography people took intellectually seriously or personally cherished from that era. Some have a casual Robert Frank quality but most of them are of sights one would ignore when walking through them or flipping through a developed roll of shots. They are not remarkable on any level. They are bland as images, experiences or photos. Some are simply not good. Chuck Close’s work is most striking because the photos are unflattering. They are images no one would want to represent them. They are exactly the shots someone would discard straight from the envelope of a developed roll.
DN: That is true. They are average photographs. But what does that mean to you? Are you saying that you’re interested in how these incidental photographs were turned into paintings?
AFH: I am saying that I am interested in why they were turned into paintings.
DN: You’re saying that you’re interested in how attracting attention to these incidental images was actually attracting attention to the fact that they were now being made into paintings. It was a step back into what? Into figurative painting?
AFH: I think there was a sociological fascination with what was being represented and I see the artists were representing an invested, and maybe even loving, attachment to their age and era.
DN: I see what you’re saying but I think that the work is so self-conscious because an artist couldn’t paint anything representational in the seventies without being extremely self-conscious. The pure fact of doing it and to do it in this way, almost creates an illusion of not doing it. It was the slowest, almost invisible, step back into doing representational work. It was almost anonymous.
AFH: Other that Chuck Close, all the work looks interchangeable to me.
DN: Just about. But for me, Estes sticks out as the most adept. There is sensuality in his paintings that I don’t see in the others. People still do stuff like his stuff. That stuff has never gone away. There are a lot of people who do work like that. It reminds me of Jeff Koons' work.
"Ana: Chuck Close I like.
David: It’s funny but I never thought of him as a photorealist. But I guess he is, in a way.
Ana: What else would he be?
David: Just a shitty painter."
AFH: Which Koons?
DN: All his paintings are done with that technique.
AFH: See, you’ve come back to technique.
DN: I never step away from it because I think technique carries the meaning.
AFH: In this instance I agree.
DN: In all instances. But that might be actually a good point. Maybe the reason why I find this work so depressing is that it is imagery separated first from the technique and then rejoined. So they are conceived of separately. That might be it. That is true to me of all artists using the photorealist technique. Jeff Koons is like that. Will Cotton is like that. I don’t think those two things are joined properly in that work. It is more like they are saying, “here is an image and here is a technique to execute that image.” I don’t think that is a healthy experience to look at.
AFH: But Will Cotton and Jeff Koons are expressing their fantasies or our shared fantasies whereas these Photorealists were representing a recognizable reality. Or they are replicating something, a photo, that represents reality for us. Or represents our memory and relationship to reality – whether that relationship is a fantasy or not, it is still reality-based. There is something blatantly selfless in that work. They are selflessly representing a reality of their era.
DN: Why do you always need to mention the “era”?
AFH: I don’t know whether they would be showing brands or new fashions in windows or other signifiers of “nowness” unless they were very aware of themselves within their era.
DN: But they were representing it coldly. I know that its very different but I don’t see that it is really that different when Jeff Koons does it that when the Photorealists use the same technique. Once this technique was made available, it became a quite common approach to representational painting. I look at it and wonder why did it become so common. I think the effect is the result of conceiving image and technique separately. I think the issue is that artists are finding their subject and then their methods differently. To me, it’s a very artificial way of considering work. It troubles me. But I think you’re just getting hung up on the theory.
AFH: But the artists were working during a period when I imagine they would have been super self-conscious of all this theory. You seem to be reacting as if I were applying extraneous interpretations but I feel that the artists themselves would have been comfortable having these conversations. I imagine that they were courting this conversation. One can’t look at Jeff Wall without applying theory because his work is all about theory. I think that this work is also heavily invested in theory.
DN: That’s not what I am saying at all. I agree with you but my point is to strip it down to just an aesthetic experience. I want to strip it down and ask “why are these paintings depressing?” I want to know what is weak about them. And what is strong. I tried to confine my engagement to that, and not get into the historical part. It is a separate discussion. I don’t think that they are not related discussions but they are separate.
AFH: I just don’t see how they are separate. I see these paintings as being like the visual equivalent of Derrida. They are dry and difficult because they are intentionally drawing attention to the failure of painting, like Derrida focuses attention – in content but also style – to the failure of language.
DN: I don’t doubt it. But I don’t consider that….
AFH: A compliment?
DN: I just don’t see that is meaningful. It might be temporarily meaningful. I think that the strength of the work on pure aesthetic terms is the more important thing. That is where they succeed or fail. Right? Are they good paintings? There were good features to them. But overall, I found them disappointing. I wanted to understand what I was finding so disappointing about them. Do you like the work? Do you take pleasure in looking at them, at all?
AFH: Chuck Close I like.
DN: It’s funny but I never thought of him as a photorealist. But I guess he is, in a way.
AFH: What else would he be?
DN: Just a shitty painter.
AFH: I like those.
DN: What about the others? What about the McDonalds or the cityscapes?
AFH: I think they are interesting, but just interesting. I think they are illustrations of ideas and the ideas are interesting but the images are nothing without what they are illustrating.
DN: So, it is just an intellectual exercise for you?
AFH: I think grappling with them intellectually is enjoyable. I just see them as ideas in physical form. And addressing them as ideas, which function as the foundation for dialogue, is fun.
DN: First principle for you is that it is an idea. That is platonic. Don’t pout at me. Why are you pouting? You know what that word means. It means that you are taking the idea as the point of origin and not the thing itself. I look at it as thing first. I always do that. I look at all art that way. Even ideas-based art. I always look at the thing.
AFH: I guess that I usually don’t. I always get more hung up and stuck on song lyrics than the music. But in this case, I think the lyrics were also more important to the artists than the music.
DN: That is just your assumption.
AFH: Do you know something I don’t know about these particular works?
DN: I know that Richard Estes loved painting and was primarily interested in painting.
AFH: How do you know that?
DN: I know that because I read interviews with him.
AFH: I was not aware of that. Of course, that changes everything. Though I still cant imagine anyone working at that time and in that intellectual environment that wasn’t more concerned with the pedantic properties to what they were doing. But I could be wrong.
DN: Each one seems different though. I don’t think that they conceived of themselves as a coherent group.
AFH: Then you’re right. What I was saying was just an assumption.
DN: I do not think that Estes was a heavy thinker. From what I know, what he was doing was pretty straightforward. The conceptual stuff was burdened upon it afterwards.
"First principle for you is that it is an idea...Don’t pout at me. Why are you pouting? ... It means that you are taking the idea as the point of origin and not the thing itself. I look at it as thing first...I look at all art that way. Even ideas-based art."
AFH: I hear what you’re saying. I just find it interesting that though this movement was never part of my education….
DN: It’s not prioritized at all. It is a heresy.
AFH: I am not saying that it was shunned but it was only a paragraph when the more overtly ideas-driven work of the seventies was lovingly addressed in my undergraduate and Masters courses in Art History.
DN: Yes, there is a prejudice against this work….Do not touch my Croque Monsieur…do not even think about it. Keep your fork on your own plate.
AFH: Whatever….Anyway, I think the “prejudice” might be why I think that I tend to see it through the matrix of conceptual practice rather than imagine it was made on an entirely different planet. I guess that is why I assume that there is some direct conversation happening within the artists and the art about tensions between photography and painting.
DN: There is a profound prejudice. I used to experience art prejudice when I was working for Mark Kostabi. His studio was upstairs from Jeff Koons. Koons was considered respected and serious but Mark was just some asshole. But they didn’t really approach their work any differently at all. Koons wasn’t any better. He was shit too. I thought it was really interesting. The prejudice was so extreme and obvious if you had a neutral perspective but art world assholes thought one was better and the other was shit. But I thought they were both shit and to me, that was clear.
AFH: Which is interesting because ironically Jeff Wall is revered for self-consciously doing the opposite and making photographs appropriating historical paintings, where the main idea at play is the same interplay between great paintings and boring photographs that could be seen in the Photorealist works – but from the opposite angle.
DN: The whole fucking thing is ironic.
AFH: Wall takes particularly vibrant paintings and renders them dry and academic by recreating them in these dead, stiff, meaningless photographs. It’s too much work.
DN: Richter does the same fucking thing.
AFH: Wall, I find more offensive somehow.
DN: He is dreadful. He is boring beyond belief.
AFH: But academics love that work. Which is why I assumed the Photorealist painters were just inversing that work and aiming for the same results.
DN: I find it fascinating that the work is so hated. It’s hated so much that its considered better to just ignore it than discuss it. But what do you lose by seriously engaging with it? It is there and real. It exists outside the terminology we’re used to and that is its real sin. But people should just look at it, for what it is and forget repeating the outside bullshit that they read or were taught. Just look at it and deal with it.
--Ana Finel Honigman
(*Images from top to bottom: Richard Estes, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Summer 1979, Oil on canvas, 79 x 140 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, in Washington, D.C., a Federal Agency; matching funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Barrie M. Damson, © Richard Estes, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Robert Bechtle, Foster’s Freeze, Escalon, 1975, Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 147.3 cm, Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art,Gift of Ivan and Zoya Gerhath, © Robert Bechtle, Courtesy Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco.
Chuck Close, Klaus, 1976, Watercolor on paper on canvas, 203,2 x 147,3 cm, Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection, © Chuck Close,
Courtesy Pace Wildenstein, New York.
Ralph Goings, McDonalds Pickup, 1970, Oil on canvas, 104.1 x 104.1 cm, OK Harris Works of Art, New York, © Ralph Goings, Courtesy O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York.)