Approaching Modern American Realism: Highlights from the Smithsonian’s Sara Roby Foundation Collection, one might expect to see a bunch of naturalistic renderings of real things in and of the world. Gustave Courbet’s take on the everyday may have been novel and shocking in the mid-nineteenth century but in 2018, Realism strikes most as a kind of pedestrian proposition. But the forty-four objects, on loan from the Smithsonian’s Sara Roby Foundation Collection, currently at the Portland Art Museum, span seventy years and are as nuanced and varied as the twentieth century. Realism is often in service to revealing a kind of truth about what it is like to be alive; but art, the act and its outcome, more often evades the quest for concise truth and instead reveals questions, uncertainties, contingencies. This is what characterizes Modern American Realism—pictures and objects, loose referents to life back then.
What connects these works is a set of perspectives, all distinctly American though far from identical. The explanatory statement from the Smithsonian doesn’t quite gel with what’s being presented in the show: “[Roby] championed Realism at a time when critics celebrated abstract expressionism and promoted “action painting” in works that bore little resemblance to the natural world.” The works in the exhibition may not fit the parameters of Abstract Expressionism, the mid-century American movement most closely associated with Jackson Pollock, but neither do they reject abstraction or expression. Arthur Dove’s Untitled (Centerport) (1941); Stuart Davis’s painting, Memo (1956); Louise Nevelson’s 1956 sculpture, Sky Totem, and Morris Graves’s Hibernation (1954) all embrace abstraction. The exhibition organizers want to present the works in a neat and concise way, Realism, tied up with a little bow. And that’s fine—the goal is to get people through the doors and to sell tickets, even memberships. American Modernism, however, defies easy characterization, defies the bow. It has always been unstructured so it is misleading to set up the expectation that Realism equals Edward Hopper. Cape Cod Morning (1950) is the work on the bulk of the show’s press materials.
I’m interested in works of art that puzzle, delight or confound for reasons I’m unaware of, as opposed to stops I’m told to hit—especially in a big museum show like this one. What work is just to the left or obscured by the big “important” work? In this show, there’s one work in particular that, for me, just begs to be stood before, gawked at, and talked about. To be sure, it’s not the exhibition’s “blue chip” work. The artist isn’t well known but the work captured my attention and made me laugh out loud. This is the kind of experience in a large museum that makes an otherwise unfocused, rushed visit worthwhile. (My teacher, the poet Larry Fagin, would hilariously suggest a gallery-going limit: “you get three works. THAT’S IT!”)
Honoré Sharrer’s Tribute to the American Working People (1951), impressed me, most for its idiosyncratic take, images (or moments) that I’m willing to bet have never been thought up, much less composed in paint before. At the top right of the right-hand panel, a man cools his feet in a bucket of water from which a mallard takes a drink. He’s flanked by a man carrying a basket of eggs (an art-historical symbol related to religious iconography) who does a jig with a rooster perched atop his head. Nearby, a country bumpkin-type kid in suspenders bears a cob of corn between his teeth.
Sharrer’s Tribute shows that the artist knew and revered her subject deeply, and that she prioritized imagination. This is lighthearted clarity, a pleasing confluence of intellectual attention and creative expression. The form that Sharrer used also discloses a keen sense for art history, in this reprise of the polyptych format most associated with altarpieces that here is neither scholarly nor religious. I daydreamed about what life must’ve been like where and when the painter lived. During the Second World War, Sharrer worked as a shipyard welder. She was also married to an art historian who specialized in the Renaissance. These things are visually apparent, but what’s more striking is how playful the pictures are.
Figures are sardine-packed in the side panel compositions but somehow the resulting scenes are not at all claustrophobic. This is due to the fact that despite realistic rendering and smoothed-out handling of paint, Sharrer has abandoned illusionistic perspective in lieu of a flattened almost caricature-style depiction of personae that represent the many in the one—a shorthand manner of telling a longer story of a people during a time. This stylized story form is the familiar territory of narrative artists, the creative minds behind the Elgin Marbles or the Lindisfarne Gospels or pre-modern painters like Piero della Francesca or Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
This work that delights as much as it puzzles because the depictions are elusively realistic: on the one hand, they seem to resemble events that could’ve likely taken place, but on the other hand they seem like subtle stretches that satisfy because they look tenuously plausible (grounded by normality and simplicity). In the school classroom scene at bottom right, black and white children commingle, drawing pictures and standing arm in arm. The work predates the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. To my mind, this is the magic of art in any medium. Art and life are always merging.
This work is so much more exciting than what the standard old classification of Realism (even if American) might conjure, and Sharrer’s work has been miscategorized as “surrealist” elsewhere because of its strangeness. But calling it surrealist distracts from the fact that, instead of a bop-you-over-the-head otherworldliness, Sharrer’s is an easy strangeness that never veers on weird. This work is capable of the same bewilderment and surprise as the would-be surrealists; Giorgio de Chirico during his Metaphysical period comes to mind. But what feels more appropriate is Magic Realism. This is most apparent in the main worker figure at center of the main panel, a space ordinarily reserved for the most revered figure of all, in an altarpiece the Virgin Mary or Christ. Sharrer’s protagonist looks destined for more than labor. In the end, I’m not sure these designations or art historical categories matter much.
The forms that people Sharrer’s Tribute are strangely ordinary, not the other way around. They’re also not just futile idlers full of asserted moral disapproval, admonition or didacticism. Rather, they’re figuratively open, almost banal if you’re not paying attention. The workers bend over before the open window; they’re reading, doing handstands, braiding one another’s hair, or standing in contemplation. Sharrer’s depictions aren’t cynical but they’re also unideal; a certain casual remove is what gives her pictures the most lifelike traits. There’s no importance added to anything—it’s all off-the-cuff, ordinary things juxtaposed in such a way that they level expectation, subtly, and transfix your attention.
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Etel Adnan said that America is interesting because “everything is true about it, and its opposite is true.” This figures into what’s real and unreal about this place and our pictures of it. Life in America isn’t really picturesque, not really anymore. It’s not one of perfection; it’s messy, at best homely, inelegant; and for many, it’s harrowing. At once, it can be John Sloan’s hair curlers and rags or Sharrer’s factory work or media reports of gun violence.
Visual art can be an aide to life, an antidote for its ills. And I think it takes all types, as they say—art that looks like life and art that looks nothing like it. In the case of the former, it might be the image or representation of the mind, emotions, the states the body undergoes at times of ecstasy, humor, distress, woe. This show provides great examples of what’s realistic relative to the dynamic perceptions of life in the modern era—in all its absurdity, beauty, the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth.
This exhibition’s approach is to represent a diverse set of examples of what American Realism looks like, looked like, as far making pictures goes. Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, managed to expand the definition of a narrow, dull category—or else abandoned its confines when selecting works. In a way, this particular “-ism” is taken to the farthest sensible reaches, almost making the show come off as a sendup to the category—rather than a reprise of strict Realism meant to oppose American Ab-Ex. To me, this is interesting. Many of the works in this show elicit a tension that comes along with the consideration of what things may have been like, how people may have thought or behaved, from 1910 to the ‘80s.
I have to admit that there is a quaintness, approachability and charm in looking at objects meant to represent the past. The view of what’s real keeps changing, as life—how we function within our individual lives and how we observe and respond to our world—changes. But it is also confirmation of how the way life seems doesn’t change much at all.
Modern American Realism is on view at the Portland Art Museum through April 28, 2019.
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