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Index by Period

Super / Photo Realism
(1975 - 2000)

If you thought the most impersonal type of art ever created would probably be what has come to be called Minimalism, you might be wrong. Minimalism was an outgrowth of some of the colour field paintings which themselves were an outgrowth of the Abstract Expressionist era. Now if you ask, what could be more impersonal than a hypothetical canvas painted in white with a muted off-white line across it, the answer might surprise you. Think of a painting of a street in a moderate-size city, a sunny day, squeaky clean storefront windows reflecting a mirror image of the city street, painted so realistically one would have to study it for a minute or so to ascertain that it was in fact a painting, not a 3' x 6' blown-up photograph. And on those streets, a couple cars, perhaps a bus, but no other evidence of human habitation, not even a scrap of paper--urban minimalism.

The work I'm describing is that of Richard Estes', Prescriptions Filled, painted in 1983. At first glance its stark, Super Realism would seem far-removed from the Minimalism that preceded it in the 1970s. But taking a closer look, one notices a near-perfect symmetry. A single, slender lightpost juts up from the deserted, cold grey sidewalk into the warm, blue sky, dividing the canvas exactly in half. On the left the city, a warm, yet stark, uninhabited, urban landscape. On the right, the same landscape, reflected in the cold, sleek, pristine, blue-grey windows of an urban drugstore. The title of the painting is derived from a small sign in the window. The effect is eerie. One- point perspective runs rampant. If fact, the painting is more about linear design than its all-too-familiar subject matter. It's only this familiarity with the subjective content of the painting that makes it difficult for us to see this.

That's exactly what Minimalism was all about, stark, flat, linear design, without representational subject matter, certainly, but no less impersonal. The subtleties of scale, shape, mass, line and colour are what makes a Minimalist painting fascinating--for about two minutes (three tops). Yet, using these same elements, Estes' paintings fascinate us for perhaps hours. We are so enraptured by his Super Realism that it may be several minutes before we even notice the absence of human habitation. We get so involved with "how-could-he-possibly-do-that?" painting skills of the artist that the painting begins to seem more "real" than the scene. Yet strangely, when one takes the time to think about it, the Minimalist painting is more real. It exists. It is not an illusion of something non-existent.

contributed by Lane, Jim

8 August 1998

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