On a recent watercolor workshop, we were invited to bring art books to share with the group. I knew that my selection of painters would get at best mixed reviews, but I wanted to test some nascent theories of my own about painters and painting. I choose two large-format retrospectives, one Robert Bechtle and the other, Richard Estes, both reigning deans of photorealism. The reactions were predictable. Polite rejections of work by my fellow painters on the bases that the stuff looked just too much like photography. “What’s the point of painting like that?” This came despite the fact that almost one quarter of the plates in the Bechtle book were watercolors.
Bechtle’s watercolors of mundane suburban motifs are a path into one of the essential contradictions in the nature of photorealism painting as fine art. In those watercolors, particularly in the enlarged details, Bechtle’s mastery of traditional watercolor technique leaps from the pages. Despite the photographic effect of the image, there is no mistaking that these are nothing less than extremely accomplished and painterly watercolors. The same is true for the watercolors of another photorealist, Ralph Goings, whose back and forth between media had opened my eyes to the use of abstraction to create an effect otherwise taken for a mechanical process.
Richard Estes shows only oils, and among many figurative purists he is reflexively rejected for the photographic dazzle of his work. Unlike Bechtel and Goings, there are no Estes watercolors or drawings to force the viewer into considering why these are paintings of the highest order. To realize just what Estes accomplishes with pigments and brushes, the paintings have to seen in person. Looking at reproductions of Estes’ photorealism in oil, no matter how perfect the reproductive process, the paintings will always appear to look just like (ready for this), photographs! Duh…
At a recent Estes show in New York, I rediscovered how much I like what he does and finally realized why so many fellow-painters believe they don’t care for photorealism. Estes’ paintings, no matter the subject; urban scenes, store-window reflections, forest interiors or Antarctic glaciers are always on a gigantic scale, six-feet by four-feet as an example. Looked at from five, six or from twenty-five feet back, they can pass for nothing more than gorgeous enlargements of color photographs. Get close, get very close, and you will discover that Estes’ works are the essence of, and in the traditions, of painting in the classical sense of the term. Up close, his work is pure painterly abstraction in the service of an illusion. And I would argue, that the effect of Estes work in its simplest terms is to force the viewer into considering in entirely new ways, the aesthetics of the world he or she inhabits.
If you ever find yourself in front of an Estes oil or a Bechtle watercolor, take the time to move slowly forward and back, forward and back, until the contrast between photographic effect and the technique of pure painting manifests itself, and if you are really lucky, knocks you on your ass.