Realism in painting is a fascinating topic, because realism is in and of itself not a particular style. There are actually dozens of realist styles and countless ways of representing the visual world in recognizable forms on canvas. Shows like Realism Today, the new exhibition at the Atrium Gallery, invite us to question the relationship of the artist's represented world to the real one. This exhibition includes works by Heather Becker, Robert Forbes, Ellen Glasgow, Art Kleinman, Mary Joan Waid and Jerry Wilkerson, and it mainly serves to inform us of the wide variety of forms that realism can take in contemporary painting. The show also proves that some approaches to realism are much more interesting than others.
Wilkerson offers up his own version of pointillism in five small still lifes. They are expertly done, if not particularly inspired. Waid's still lifes are far less controlled, which comes as a relief. They are muscular but full of pure light and space. Forbes' "Dine" and "Inspirational Light," both oil on canvas, are finely wrought photorealist works. Becker is represented by three tiresome oil paintings that feature doe-eyed figures emerging from hazy, worked-over fields.
The best works in this show belong to Kleinman, who is represented by three untitled self-portraits. They are images of the same man, yet they couldn't be more different. One, a full-length portrait, shows the artist in baggy pants and a tank top, with arms folded in defiance. He could be a working-class immigrant, hard-edged and resentful. Next to this is another self-portrait, in which the artist, in a polo shirt, looks thoroughly smug, more country club and upper crust than working class.
Across from these, an entirely other effect is achieved: The artist appears in full length, shirtless and with hands to face. He looks utterly mortal and slightly terrified. That three self-portraits can yield up such different senses of one individual is a testament to Kleinman's power as an artist. His works will not pin him down; rather, they attest to the multiplicity of identities that it is possible for one individual to maintain.
On the whole, Realism Today won't add anything new to discussions about realism in image-making. It merely serves to remind us that, yes, there are still realist painters around, and most of them produce nice pictures. If they all made pictures as rich as the ones by Art Kleinman, then that would be something new.