Picture This 

Five realists strut their stuff with "Go Figure."

These days the practice of realist painting has to be a lonely pursuit. After all, with the ascent in the last several decades of performance, installation, and conceptual art, traditional media like painting and sculpture -- associated with absolute standards of beauty and technical rigor -- have largely been scuttled in deference to theoretical aims. Those who persist risk being perceived as peddlers of obsolete goods by the faster art crowd, impugned as hopelessly stuck in the past. Then, on the flip side of the coin, there are those conservative arbiters of taste who insist that mimetic facility is still the true measure of artistic merit, no doubt as a corollary to the cynical rejection of more contemporary notions of fine art. While recent shifts in the discourse of art would suggest a new paradigm rising, the reception that realist painting receives is still likely to be freighted by these two extreme views.

Of course, there may be as many valid justifications for realism as there are those who practice it, even while painting in general no longer occupies the dominant status that it once held in the art world. Today, realism as a tradition humbly stands alongside the plurality of creative vehicles now available to artists, and therefore it's no wonder that most bypass it in favor of media that don't require such a steep learning curve. Those who are up to the task will generally find very little encouragement or technical expertise among academics or elsewhere, although there are exceptions.

A new exhibit at Perry Nicole Fine Art, "Go Figure," brings together the work of five local artists who have been meeting monthly in the context of their common exploration of representational painting. The impetus for their gathering is to create support for one another's aims, the sharing of knowledge and critique.

The subtitle for the show, "The Contemporary Realist Impulse," inadvertently implies a distinction: Most of this work, while figurative, does not really belong in the category of realism. Sur-realism is more on target in the case of Kurt Meer's Odd Nerdrum-inspired Await. Nerdrum is the leading proponent of art that he calls "kitsch," manifested as brown and doleful images right out of the Dark Ages. Meer's own painting, depicting the head and shoulders of a stoic female, imparts that same gothic sentiment. The artist's handling of the oil medium is delightfully looser than in previous offerings, and the subject conveys a sense of brooding intensity, not to mention psychological horror.

The paintings of Elizabeth Alley and Alan Duckworth are not so much examples of realism as they are reflections of mannerist tendencies. It would appear that most, if not all, of the painters in this show relied upon photographic resources, and one imagines that the abbreviated styles of Alley and Duckworth are a function of their subjects being twice-removed. The contrast and savory palette of Alley's When I was the Youngest make for good examples of how this photographic approach creates a generalized image and the way in which this aids her painterly impulses. Similarly, Duckworth's own paintings have that stripped-down monumentality, but the outward manifestation is much more reflective. Here and There utilizes huge expanses of mottled white, as in several of his paintings, and it is just plain sensuous.

David Philips' The Village Idiot, depicting a masked Adonis assuming a defiant slouch, hearkens to, as in all of his pictures, a standard of academic painting from the 19th century. The model's theatrical pose, fit for a frieze, and an umber palette both suggest that sense of moth- eaten antiquity so characteristic of classical motifs. Philips is an excellent colorist and this is no better expressed than in his sensitivity to the subtle nuances of translucent flesh. Philips' powers of composition and proportion are keen as well, but too much attention is paid to the details, in the form of timid brushwork, at the expense of pictorial cohesiveness. The artist would benefit by taking the broad view, with less emphasis on the incidentals. Philips clearly is in possession of all the necessary faculties for resolute picture-making, if he can just trust himself a little more.

A confidence problem is the least of Adam Shaw's worries. Truly, Shaw is one of the most underrated painters in town, and it is a real shame. Just one look at Drop of Oil is enough to convince anyone that this young man has skills oozing out of his pores. The artist's broad brushwork, with a wink to Frans Hals, is impeccable and assured. Shaw's subject matter leans toward the illustrative, and if the inclination toward the theatrical is a little heavy-handed at times, one can forgive this youthful exuberance as long as the painting is this luscious.

Overall, "Go Figure" seems like a beneficial experiment. One hopes that as each painter continues on the path, some of the meaner aspects of their images will fall away, and they will depend less on novelties and gimmicks like floating rocks, heroic angst, and comic-book narratives.

Showing through July.

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      Hamlett Dobbins talks about his fellowship in Rome and his new exhibit at David Lusk.

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