The Sharper Image

The Tucson Museum of Art gets real.

Every time a new art form has been discovered, the art world has proclaimed that its birth would inevitably lead to the death of an older art form. The invention of film would mean the death of theater. The invention of photography would be the death of painting. The development of digital media would lead to the death of traditional photography.

Even though photography was invented over a century ago and art galleries are still glutted with paintings, some critics are still jabbering about the death of painting. Painting hasn't died. What painting has been doing since the 1960s is using photography in a variety of ways.

As Real As It Gets: Super Realism and Photo-Realism from the Permanent Collection and Private Collections is the Tucson Museum of Art's look at a significant movement in 20th-century art. The current exhibition includes artworks by some of Photo-Realism and Super Realism's best-known artists as well as some of the movements' lesser-known figures and its second-generation heirs. With the support of museum donors and lenders, Julie Sasse, TMA's curator of contemporary art, has assembled more than 50 artworks to create an interesting view of Photo-Realism. With 30 of the works drawn from TMA's collection, it's clear that Photo-Realism has become one of the strengths of the museum's collection.

Four longtime TMA supporters helped make As Real As It Gets possible. New Yorkers Ivan and Marilynn Karp have been donating art to TMA for years, and 10 of the works that they have donated are included in As Real As It Gets. Ivan began representing many of the original photo-realist artists at his prestigious O.K. Harris Gallery in the 1960s when the movement was new and controversial. Jules Litvack, a member of TMA's board of directors, and Elaine Litvack, the founder of TMA's Contemporary Art Society, loaned the museum 18 artworks from their personal collection.

Photo-Realism and Super Realism, along with the less popular terms Hyper-Realism and Sharp-Focus Realism, are used interchangeably for the art movement popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Photo-realists typically use photographs or slides as the basis for their images. Some artists project the photographic image onto their image surface and use a graph system to literally replicate the photographic image. Not all photo-realist artists use this process and not all of them are slavish in reproducing a final image that is an exact (or near exact) replica of the original photographic image. Super-realist artists use all types of two-dimensional, as well as three-dimensional, media, including oil, acrylic, silkscreen, watercolor, airbrush, pencil and ceramics. Regardless of the medium, the surfaces of their two-dimensional images are typically smooth.

Photo-realists want their media to be transparent the way snapshots are, so that they won't distract the viewer from looking at the image. Many photo-realists chose what seemed like banal subjects at the time: dilapidated cars, signs and even grocery displays. American icons turn up in various guises: diners, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, cowboys and even Las Vegas. The irony is that over time things that were once banal have been imbued with a nostalgic sense of times past and places quickly disappearing. In taking on the guise of cool, objective photography, photo-realists have acquired one of its integral traits: an indelible bond to time and memory.

John Baeder's screen print "Griddle Inn" is a classic photo-realist work in terms of its subject. Three men sit (backs toward the viewer) at a diner counter stocked with boxes of Slim Jims, Big Horn Beef Jerky and the current edition of TV Guide. The print's resolution is not photographic, but Baeder has chosen his details carefully. One of the men's bulging pockets reveals its white lining. It's Americana transformed into modern art.

Robert Bechtle's large oil-on-linen painting "Fosters Freeze, Escalon" is a technical marvel. His scene of a mother and her two children eating ice cream at a picnic bench outside an ice-cream stand looks perfectly photographic. In fact, you practically have to stick your nose up to the canvas to see the paint details. The composition is an example of the photographic "decisive moment." The woman looks up just as she licks her ice-cream cone. The children are poised, spoon to mouth, ready to eat, too. The visual eavesdropping evoked by such images resembles the voyeurism that now drives Americans' lust for reality TV.

Victor Rodriguez, a Mexican artist who was born in 1970 and now lives in Brooklyn, is even younger than the second generation of super realists. Like Bechtle's work, Rodriguez's 1998 acrylic-on-canvas painting "Pencil" is incredibly well done technically. Rodriguez has divided his canvas into two scenes. The left side is a close-up portrait of a woman writing with a pencil on a spiral notepad. The right side is a close-up of her handwriting on the notebook, but the page is blank and the pencil has not been sharpened. Incidentally, the woman has blue fingernails.

What is "Pencil" about? The difficulty of communication between people. The ephemeral nature of language. The notebook is actually a reporter's notebook, so the painting might be about incompetent journalists, but that interpretation would be a stretch without seeing a larger body of Rodriguez's work. What is interesting about Rodriguez's painting in the context of As Real As It Gets is that his work clearly began with a concept rather than external reality.

Photo-realist art can be boring when artists intentionally choose banal subject matter and when the novelty of their ability to replicate photographic techniques wears thin. Why spend weeks, maybe months, painting a single image that could be snapped with a camera in a second? Of course, the image probably was photographed as the basis for the painting, so why go on? One of the basic assumptions of modern Western art is that art provides a means of self-expression and/or a way to interpret reality. What many photo-realists want to do is to present the world and the things of the world as objectively as possible without the artist's interpretive screen. Photography can do that, but in meticulously rendering a scene in non-photographic media, photo-realists hope to create an even better reason for people to look more closely at the world.