"Blow Up: New Painting and Photoreality," Mar. 9-Apr. 10, 2004, at St. Paul's Gallery, 94-108 Northwood Street, Birmingham, U.K.
All surveillance photos end up in Birmingham.
England's second largest city, Birmingham is the final destination for a countrywide network of surveillance and spy cameras.
Yet for a place that specializes in visual image processing, Birmingham has a conspicuous lack of visual culture. The city is better known for the TV version of Gladiators (shot at the local sports arena) than for its cultural institutions.
The city has a daytime population of seven million but only two serious galleries.
One of Birmingham's cultural saviors is Ross Alderson, an art collector and owner of St. Paul's Gallery, which was opened a year ago in February 2003. Alderson is no stranger to the world of high technology. He was the developer of the first secure transaction on the internet in the UK and ran one of Birmingham's most successful ad agencies, whose main clients were from the IT industry.
When Alderson's 10-year-long passion for collecting contemporary art exceeded the spatial limitations of his home, he bought a large, undeveloped building in Birmingham's warehouse district near St. Paul's Square. After a complete face-lift, the 8,000-square-foot structure was transformed into a modern gallery space.
St. Paul's current exhibition, "Blow Up: New Painting and Photoreality," features a range of painters who begin from a photographic starting point.
The exhibition includes 19 international artists who draw their subjects from today's dominant visual forces -- the Internet, television, movies, magazines, video games and billboards. This ultra-contemporary imagery becomes the visual lexicon from which the artists create a rich new language of painting, haunted by the ghost of photography.
The term "Photorealism" was coined in the late 1960s by the immensely successful New York art dealer and self-styled father of the movement, Louis K. Meisel.
Rule number three (of five) in Meisel's 1972 manifesto of Photorealism required all potential Photorealist painters to "have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic."
Although Photorealism became known for this trademark exhibition of technical dexterity, Alderson claims that much of the work has been "pigeon-holed on the basis of technique rather than artistic intent and achievement." "Blow Up" proposes we consider the work of the new generation of photo-based painters in terms of their choice of subjects.
Still, one can't help but marvel at the liquid metal surfaces of Andrew Holme's painting Stainless (2003) -- only to realize that it's not a painting, but pencil crayon on paper.
Holme's work recalls the paintings of hardcore original Photorealists like Richard Estes, who celebrates the cult of the consumer by depicting the kaleidoscopic reflections of glistening new products displayed in urban American shop windows.
Gerhard Richter is the bridge between the formative years of Photorealism (1965-1972) and many of the artists included in "Blow Up."
Richter's major influence was the group of painters that he called "Radical Realists" -- artists like Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings and John Salt -- although he claims that they made some "truly dreadful" paintings.
Photorealists with a subtle political edge, the Radical Realists were engaged in painting banal snapshots of everyday life. The conceptual framework of the group was to remove any expressionistic trace of the artist -- predating a whole school of German photography coming to prominence under Bernd and Hilla Becher, more than a decade latter.
The 67-year-old English-born painter John Salt, one of the underrated fathers of Photorealism, is still painting the rusty relics of road culture and its relationship to the American dream.
Catskill Cadillac (1994-1996) is a deadpan scene of a parking lot behind a clapboard house. The scene is banal, painted in hues so washed-out and bland that the picture becomes magically sublime in its eerie stillness.
Equally transformed from the mundane are the subjects in paintings by Roland Hicks -- close-up shots of hairbrushes, liquid soap nozzles and light bulbs. Isolated from their contexts on gradated backgrounds, the bubbling soap nozzles become sexualized, the light bulbs become anthropomorphic -- almost figurative -- each with their own distinct personality.
I'm Not Going Anywhere (2003), a painting of a light bulb in the shape of a candle, can be seen as an ironic twist on the symbolism of candlelight illumination in the history of Western painting. Referring directly to Richter's series of candle flames, Hicks pays homage to the German master, as well as making a wry commentary on the consequences of technology modern day life.
In Neil Gall's Performance (2003) a tactile jumble of children's toys -- lego blocks, balloons, extruded ropes of plasticine and pink rubber balls wrapped in electrical tape -- crowds the surface of the painting.
Hans Hoffman-like yellow and lime green squares push and pull the entire mass forward towards the picture plan. Gall admits this is a throwback to his day as an Abstract Expressionist painter -- only now, the painted gestures have been replaced by a photorealist rendering of lyrical playthings. Nell's new paintings have a metaphysical dimension to them as well, recalling Alberto Savinio's (brother of Giorgio de Chirico) The Lost Ship (1926).
Jason Brooks' larger-than-life portraits may recall those of Chuck Close, but the resemblance is only skin-deep. The sports-car-driving Brooks is not a serial formalist painter like Close. Looking at Brooks's Zoe (2004) from close proximity reveals his fetishistic fixation with surface, the skin of the painting.
Brooks airbrush transforms every spot, fissure, and pimple on his subject's face into microcosm of gestural markings. Zoe's tattoos become pictures within the picture. Slowly backing away from the painting, a moment of unitary cohesion occurs, the mysterious point where all the abstract minutiae miraculously converge into the simulacrum of a crisp photograph.
Brooks stealth-ness applies to his subjects as well. Seen from afar, the much smaller Fyfield (2003) depicts an athletic young woman crouching down under an apple tree. Her head is cropped by the top of the painting, further accentuating our sense of voyeurism. We see the woman from the he shoulders down, but she doesn't see us. Her flowery dress is pulled up around her upper thighs, provocatively revealing her bare legs. As we come in for a closer look, we notice a tinkle of urine spraying from between her legs -- she's engaged in plein-air pissing!
During the preview of "Blow Up," I noticed many a viewer's cheeks redden with embarrassment or flush with guilty pleasure when passing this highly charged painting.
Masakatsu Kondo's landscapes are like modern-day versions of 19th-century American Luminist paintings, notably in their fascination with light.
The artist Albert Bierstadt braved the 19th century wilderness to paint landscapes. Cameraless, he made oil sketches on small wooden panels to record the places he had seen. The resulting sketches would be brought back to his studio and amalgamated into a painting of cinematic proportions -- epic, idealized, impossible landscapes -- like the grossly exaggerated mountains in his Camping in Yosemite (1864).
Kondo scours magazines and surfs the net for ready-made images of landscapes. He then weaves the component landscape images into a seamless compilation. Fusing his carefully chosen photographic fragments with a blazing network of highly saturated color brushstrokes, Kondo imbues his paintings with atomized quality, reminiscent of memories or dreams.
"Blow Up" beautifully illustrates how richly diverse a collection of paintings can be made by artists who fetishize the photograph over its referent.
These are not paintings of person, place or thing, but portraits of photographs. By performing a painstaking pictorial autopsy, many of the artists in "Blow Up" disembody their photograph sources into a microcosm of fragmentary and disconnected graphic ciphers -- only to be put back together again by the electric spark of the our unifying gaze.