Sunday, December 7, 2014

Photorealism: The Besthoff Collection at NOMA

Citarella Fish Company by Richard Estes

It's no secret that Sydney and Walda Besthoff are big time art lovers, but the size of their photorealist painting collection, which takes up the entire back half of NOMA's first floor galleries, may come as a surprise. It is clearly one of America's best, and if anyone wants to see what virtuoso, bravura painting looks like, this is the place. While not fully understood, photorealism is important because of what it reveals about how people have come to see the world around us. Painting as we know it was defined during the renaissance by the depth perspective revealed by early optical devices. Sometimes the lens was just a pin hole in a dark enclosure, but the perspective it revealed has shaped our worldview ever since. Without even trying, people learned to see optical perspective over the centuries by looking at images. The invention of photography in the 19th century mechanized that process. Photographs came across as truth, but when photorealism appeared in the 1960s, the human hand reemerged as an arbiter of reality.  

Sunset Street, 1974 by Robert Bechtle

Photorealism records reflections and other details the way a camera sees them, which ironically enables the painter's hand to create hyper-real images--like Richard Bell's dazzling painting of Cat's Eye Marbles in a swirl of laser sharp reflections, or Peter Maier's impossibly sharp and sleek views of antique cars--that seem more vivid than photographs. But photorealism at its best reveals the subtler magic that underlies our ordinary, everyday world; at least, if we are receptive to it. In Richard Estes 1991 New York street scene, Citarella Fish Company, or Davis Cone's 1984 view of the Happy Hour  theater on Magazine Street, the canvas almost seems to breathe with the sheer presence of those times and places. Similarly, Robert Bechtle's haunting Sunset Street, 1974, vibrates to the cool, Bay area light rather like a minimal modernist reprise of Edward Hopper's stark vistas bathed in the pale luminosity of the distant New York sun. Such works suggest a special insight that, as the late novelist David Foster Wallace put it, "has everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is real and essential, yet so hidden in plain sight all around us..." ~Bookhardt

Photorealism: The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection, Through January 25, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.