Mana Contemporary and the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation have a meticulous show of Photorealist artwork, titled Our Own Directions. The exhibition, on view from now until January 2012, features painting, sculpture and photography from the private collection of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel.
Photorealism made a splash in the late 1960s as a generation of artists rejected art-world tradition by unashamedly embracing photography to create realist paintings and sculptures. To some, the genre was an example of exquisite craftsmanship and technique, spearheaded by an intelligent dialogue between photography and painting. To others it was a masturbatory merry-go-round full of self-congratulation that lacked the bite of Pop.
Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel have invested more than 40 years of their lives to the collection, acquisition and research of photorealist artwork. This exhibition is a veritable Who’s Who of the genre. Artists featured in the exhibition include Chuck Close, Robert Bechtle, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack and Mel Ramos, to name just a few. The show provides the viewer a unique opportunity to see one of the singular collections of photorealist artwork in a public space. Though the show contains more than 38 artists, it does not feel crowded.
As visitors enter the building, they will first see a selection of twelve pieces by Close on display in Mana Contemporary’s first floor gallery. With an entire gallery devoted to his work, Close is the star of the show. His name is emblazoned in giant red vinyl lettering on pristine white walls. An expository exhibition label is included for good measure. While each artist gets his or her due, no one else gets this treatment. The rest of the exhibition is located on the sixth floor, which is accessible by freight elevator that a congenial old man dressed in a dapper suit operated throughout the afternoon.
Most of the pieces are modest in scale created with oil on canvas. There is an occasional print, drawing or sculpture thrown in. Many of the paintings hang on the wall like a moose or deer head in a hunter’s trophy room, and the works are paired according to subject matter, e.g., shiny surfaces here, reflective surfaces there and naked boobies in the corner.
To say the exhibition is enjoyable or inviting would be dishonest. The show is as much a middle-aged “fuck you” aimed at art world elitism as it is a celebration of the photorealist artwork. The Meisels know that many people in the art world view photorealism as retrograde, even pointless: Photorealism is sometimes disparaged as paint-by-numbers on steroids. They do not care what these people think. Indeed, if this show had a theme song, it would be “My Way” by Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. As the lyrics go: “I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.”
Perhaps this aggressively self-contained attitude is the reason I had a difficult time engaging with the work. As I stood in the gallery in front of one illusory scene after another (pristine, perfect, ideal), I found myself moving closer and closer to the sixth floor windows — to leap from, perhaps. The world outside the window was far from perfect. In fact, it was downright ugly, New Jersey ugly, and I savored every soiled bit of it.
For me, the collection felt inaccessible. My lack of engagement troubled me during my visit and continues to trouble me now as I sit at my desk. Why did I not connect to the work on view? Do I lack imagination or thoughtfulness? Maybe my reticence had something to do with all the reflective surfaces in the paintings. Perhaps the mind-numbing detail, so characteristic of Photorealism, subdued me into passivity. I’ve experienced this type of feeling in front of the work of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. (A gallery always seems to drop 15 or 20 degrees for me when a Rothko is hanging on a wall.)
Like Newman and Rothko, Photorealist work is all form, technique and surface. The one painting that I was able to latch on to in the exhibition was Robert Bechtle’s “’73 Malibuby” (1974), which was one of my favorites. A green Chevy Malibu sits in a nondescript parking lot in hot daylight. Its chrome fender catches the sun. No one is around. The subject matter is banal, ho-hum. I know this scene. I lived it in middle-class 1980s suburban New Jersey; the first car I drove underage was a Chevy Malibu. There is something about the quality of light in this painting that elicits an existential dread specific to suburban afternoons in America, at least in California and New Jersey. Death is near, right around the corner, waiting.
The Meisels have committed most of their lives to amassing a definitive collection of Photorealist art. They mean business. “Our collecting is an intellectual pursuit,” Louis K. Meisel has said. “We are not part of the herd. We do not collect to gain status nor for investment … It’s a life’s work and recreation.”
How did the Meisels hone their vision? I know I had trouble distinguishing one artist from another in the show. How did they develop their relationships with their stable of artists, like Charles Bell and Audrey Flack? This exhibition would be greatly enhanced by an explanation of their day-to-day realities of looking, collecting, buying and selling art.
Also, I would be interested to know how they whittled their collection to its current incarnation at Mana Contemporary. Hilo Chen, Hubert De Lartigue and John Kacere are part of their collection. For this trio of artists, some young philly’s nubile round titties or swollen ass cheeks do the work, rather than a chrome bumper or fender reflecting the light. Why weren’t these images included here? I bet they would have counteracted the overall coldness of this show and infused it with some much-needed life.
Our Own Directions: The Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel Collection is presented by the Eileen S. Kaminsky Foundation in collaboration with the Mana Art Center, and it continues at Mana Contemporary (888 Neward Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey) until January 2012.