Realism is best suited to convey the frightening idiosyncrasies of our time. — Duane Hanson
What is reality and how should an artist explore this concept in his or her work? Rejecting art history’s long-standing predilection for idealism, the five hyperrealistic photographers and sculptors on currently on display in I Don’t Like Fiction, I Like History, at Gagosian Beverly Hills present a refreshingly authentic and unvarnished viewing experience.
As the centerpiece of this highly conceptual showcase, American sculptor Duane Hanson’s Lunchbreak (1989) consists of three life-sized construction workers. These polyvinyl figures appear so life-like that visitors may incorrectly assume they are real workers installing the show. One of the figures reclines on the ground as he puffs on a cigarette and blankly stares off into the middle-distance. Another perches himself atop some wooden scaffolding as he sips from a Coca-Cola can. The final figure leans against a beam, his hammer ready in hand. Clad in faded jeans, t-shirts, and hard-hats, the builders do not meet each other’s gazes. Instead, they retreat into their own minds as they savor this fleeting moment of peace and relaxation.
Here Hanson (1925-1996) masterfully crafts a narrative through absence. Just like with Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1881 impressionist masterpiece, Luncheon of the Boating Party, the human mind witnesses these characters and naturally tries to fill in the blanks with a story. However, this al-fresco lunch is a far cry from the frolicsome, breezy, and joyful affair seen in the Renoir painting. As lonesome, mundane scenes like this are still exceedingly rare in the art world, Lunchbreak feels as fresh and subversive today as it did upon its creation twenty-nine years ago.
In 2003, renowned Massachusetts-born portrait photographer Sharon Lockhart captured the installation of Hanson’s Lunchbreak at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The resulting four chromogenic prints are also on display in this Gagosian exhibition. As Lockhart’s camera roams around the piece, we soon notice two figures that are not in the original. These new workers perform a range of tasks, prompting the realization they are real, human installers. It is this ambiguity that makes Lockhart’s photographs so intriguing. In reversing the concept of Hanson’s original, she arrives at the same conclusion — that the human brain only notices only a small percentage of the stimuli the world bombards us with on a daily basis.
However, Gagosian visitors will recognize Hanson’s undeniable influence on Lockhart in yet another life-sized sculpture on display here titled Child with Puzzle (1978). Just like Lunchbreak, this astoundingly accurate depiction of Hanson’s daughter, Maja reveals an intimate moment of leisure. Cast from life, this polyvinyl piece depicts the young girl sitting on small Persian carpet while working on a jigsaw puzzle.
In Maja and Elodie (2003), Lockhart’s homage to this charming work, she presents two seemingly identical chromogenic prints featuring Child with Puzzle. However, this time around, Maja has a playmate. In both images, a real woman real sits on the floor and “helps” the girl with this activity. Here we witness the characters in a spacious yet empty room with elegant robin’s egg blue crown molding. Maja and Elodie sit facing each other with the unfinished puzzle between them. As Elodie’s poses in both prints are nearly indistinguishable, the visitor’s eye immediately begins searching for other variations. Lockhart’s ability to emulate the beloved childhood “spot the difference” game here highlights her brilliance as an artist.
Staring at these two photographs for several minutes, the only perceptible deviation seems to be changing light. Again, this emphasis on shifting shadows and the ephemeral goes back to the impressionist tradition. For example, Claude Monet famously painted the facade of Normandy’s Rouen Cathedral in 1894. He did so at various times throughout the day and year to capture a range of lighting conditions. Both these Monet paintings and Maja and Elodie suggest the unrelenting passage of time. Here, Lockhart forces the viewer to accept the reality that children grow up. Doing the calculations, we soon realize that Maja, depicted here as an innocent child, is now likely in her late 40s.
I Don’t Like Fiction, I Like History also tackles life’s brutal realities in Tenants (2007), a silver gelatin print by renowned Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Featuring a slightly dilapidated, nondescript apartment complex, this cinematic black-and-white-image compels the viewer to contemplate the notion of the American Dream and recognize economic opportunity is simply not afforded to all.
Similarly, celebrated German landscape photographer Andreas Gursky also depicts “real America” in Utah (2017). This blurry snapshot of average American domiciles taken from a moving car also resides in the realm of transitory reality. Here, the artist strips away the fantasy of the cowboy and reveals just how quickly American culture is shifting towards conformity and globalization. Aside from the mighty and seemingly eternal orange mountains in the background, the viewer would have no way of knowing the western locale of this photograph. Even these sacred, everlasting peaks appear fluid and light as air here, underscoring the transient, impermanent nature of life and the importance of appreciating the present moment.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.