Reality, the psychoanalysts tell us, is what’s not-me, what’s not only separate from me but alien to me, so "other" that if I confuse it with me I’m mad, which is no doubt why love is mad (a short, temporary insanity, as Freud said). And yet none of us can completely accept separation, which is why we keep falling in love with something or other in the environment, at least being drawn to it in search of respite from separateness. We find ourselves attracted to nonhuman things, including those produced by human beings (beliefs and ideas, cultural objects, machines, etc.) as well as other human beings (whom we unconsciously hope will be like ourselves, however consciously we know they aren’t), in a subjective effort to bridge and fill the relational gap built into the separateness that is the essence of objectivity.
As Donald Winnicott writes, "reality-acceptance is never completed," and "no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality. . . relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.)." If this is true, then what is special about Photorealist art is that it makes no attempt to relate inner and outer reality -- to suggest an intermediate area of experience in which the me (subject) and not-me (object) mingle in what Michael Balint calls a "harmonious mix-up" in which their difference is muted without being denied -- but is ruthlessly objective. There is no trace of atmosphere in Photorealist works -- none of the romanticization of atmosphere that is a sign of subjective investment in the objective world. Indeed, the peculiar atmospherelessness of Photorealist paintings, even when they picture the atmospheric sky, as in Anthony Brunelli’s Trick Jak (2005), Davis Cone’s Cameo (1988) and Ralph Goings’ Golden Dodge (1971) (where the blue sky is reflected in a monumental window), suggests clear-eyed acceptance of objective reality, and with that our separateness from it.
But this is why the world, seen through a Photorealist lens, seems disturbingly unreal: it is impossible to reconcile ourselves to -- let alone feel comfortably at home in-- a world in which we can gain no subjective foothold. We may pet the horses and the cowgirls in Richard McLean’s Diamond Tinker and Jet Chex (1977), but neither is likely to respond: they’re taxidermal showpieces -- dumb monumental statues -- in an American Scene diorama. We can invest our feelings in them all we want, but they remain feelingless. Inner reality has become meaningless; they are all outer reality. When outer reality has been emphasized at the expense of inner reality, or vice versa, reality-testing fails, leaving us disoriented and dazed, and susceptible to delusions. Is the Photorealized world one? We glaze over -- a state conveyed by the smooth, "glazed," hypnotic surface and look of things in a Photorealist picture. It is this absurd state of mind -- consciousness with no underlying unconscious, adhesive identification with objectivity with no subjective resistance to it, as it were -- that Photorealism, with its hyperconsciousness of outer reality, conveys. Looking at a Photorealist painting, we are in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, where everything is dead however lifelike, artificial however seemingly natural, cold however apparently warm-blooded, estranging however inviting, bizarrely unreal however grossly real.
The voluptuous buttocks of John Kacere’s C. Smith (1972) belong to a bloodless mannequin. Confronting us -- Photorealist images in general are confrontational, all the more so because of their intimidating perceptual certitude, their seemingly infallible facticity -- with their indifferent objectivity, they mock all-too-human male desire: every erection is vulnerable -- and unequal -- to their anonymous grandeur. No intimacy is possible, however much their appearance is sexually exciting -- they have only media reality. Like all convincing Photorealism, they bring mimesis into question even as they mimic reality.
The toy robot with a camera in the left hand corner of Don Jacot’s Flying Saucers (2008) -- some have robot pilots -- gives the game away: the Photorealist artist is a robot in a world of robots -- which is why he understands it so well. (C. Smith -- a pseudonym for Jane Doe? -- is, after all, an anonymous sex toy and robot, and so is the hotrod in Ron Kleeman’s Ride on Target (2004), with its Dodge Energizer. Power and masculinity proving itself are "hot" sub-themes that haunt seemingly "cool" Photorealist imagery.) Jacot’s toy flying saucers look cute and colorful, but they’re sinister and deadly serious. When things become totally objective -- when reality loses its subjective resonance and becomes one-sidedly objective (even as bright colors and intense light add a subjective gloss to it, making it deceptively alluring) -- they become totally artificial and deadening. In McLean’s picture, Hemingway’s clean, well-lit room -- the neat, impersonal, coldly lit space of modernity -- has become an objective nightmare.
Photorealism shows us a world in which nothing is really alive and nothing decays -- it is an artificial world of perpetual youth in which everything looks neat, new, and empty: a world stripped of subjective nuance, making it radically banal. The rotting Impala in John Salt’s Purple Impala with Swing (1975) is the ingenious exception -- covered with "expressionistic" graffiti, it suggests that Abstract Expressionism is dead (certainly redundant and hackademic by 1975) -- that proves the rule, even as the swing, made for the permanent child in all of us, confirms it.
The message of Photorealism is that the modern world is a sham, a point driven home by the modern buildings which appear in several works, perhaps most noteworthily Bertrand Meniel’s Bahnhofplatz [in Zürich] (2008). They are facades with nothing behind them -- a sort of Potemkin’s village of trite buildings, sometimes with their windows shaded as though they had a business secret to hide, when in fact the people who live and work in them are as humdrum and stale as the buildings are on the outside. Like virtually everything in "photo-finish[ed]" realism, they are hygienically artificial -- sanitized into artificial perfection and purity -- to the point of no return to naturalness. The point is made clearly in Brunelli’s painting, where the Renaissance palace and Baroque church, which for all the difference of their facades and structures have the same organic character, almost push the modern shop windows in which they are reflected -- in effect saving the face of the faceless modern buildings (reflections are generally used to ironical effect in Photorealism) -- out of the picture, implying their insignificance. Nature, when it appears in Photorealist pictures, tends to be marginal and grubby, a sort of pointless flourish, not to say blemish, on an otherwise pristine pseudo-reality (implicitly marked by a no trespassing and no touching sign), like the grass in McLean’s ironic painting, or tailor-made, like the plants in Robert Bechtle’s 68 Cadillac (1970). The unconscious power of Photorealism comes from its subtle irony -- a sort of sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek critical consciousness.
It is a subliminally biting if overtly dispassionate social realism, unlike the overtly angry, impassioned social realism of German Verism (New Objectivity). But American Photorealism is also true to a new objectivity: the new objectivity of the standardized modern world, seamlessly self-same -- if not without its neo (or should one say mock?, pseudo?) traditional structures, such as the grand hotel that appears in Richard Estes’ The Plaza (1991) -- rather than the new objectivity of a crumbling Germany, divided against itself and on the verge of total collapse into chaos, and symbolic of decadent, war-exhausted Europe. The new photorealist objectivity is also stubbornly factual, and also fantastic and macabre, if less obviously than German Verism.
Both Photorealism and Verism are true to modern life, but modern life has changed, certainly for the better outwardly. The slick shiny structures, exciting neon signs, and materialistic goodies in Photorealist pictures make it clear that society -- especially American society -- has come a long way from George Grosz’s rendering of "mankind gone mad" in the metropolis, where whores wait in the alleys outside Otto Dix’s nightclub, watched by crippled veterans in tattered uniforms. But inwardly the modern world has subtly changed for the worse -- indifference rather than viciousness reigns. Except, of course, in the movies, where cannibalistic sexuality is the rule, as "Lick City," playing on Saturday in Cone’s Cameo Theatre, suggests. Similarly, the flamboyantly red sign in Robert Cottingham’s Taft (1991) streaks across the picture like an aggressive ejaculate -- an acceptable public discharge of (artificial?) passion in surrogate form. It could have issued from the cigar Mel Ramos’ maiden humps.
It’s the American way of distracting us from the impoverishment of the environment. Photorealist pictures are masterpieces of indifference. They show us the modern environment’s indifference to us. It neglects -- fails -- to reflect our organic and inner reality, except, at odd unconvincing moments, superficially. We are trivial token presences in Cone’s, Estes’, and Kleeman’s pictures; otherwise we are invisible. When we are present, we lack substance and individuality; when we are absent the scene couldn’t care less. Photorealism conveys the impersonal essence of the modern world, distilling its standardized objectivity with an uncompromising empiricism equal to its unyielding alienness. Photorealism is a shockingly clinical description of the artificial environment in which we live. And its artificializing effect on us: like David Parrish’s Elvis & Marilyn (1995-96) -- media ideals of absolute artificiality -- we have become so artificial that we don’t know what it is to feel real. Their artificiality overtook them, giving them a grotesque glamour even as it killed them inwardly, reducing them to actors of feelings they didn’t have. Their suicides completed their derealization of themselves, confirming that their only reality was social.
"Louis K. Meisel Gallery: 40 Years of Photorealism," Nov. 5-28, 2009, at Louis K. Meisel Gallery, 141 Prince Street, New York, N.Y. 10012, and Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.