“Approaches to Realism”

Goldsmiths Gallery

What could be more abstract than realism? Imagine an Arcimboldo figure called “Reality”; of what would it be composed? A chimera of metonyms, magnetized about an absence, or as Nietzsche said of truth, “a mobile army of metaphors, anthropomorphisms . . . human relations . . . ” composing an illusion of presence.

In “3 American Painters,” Michael Fried spoke of “the gradual withdrawal of reality from the power of painting to represent it.” In his introduction to this show, John Roberts shows awareness of the slippery state of “realism” by prefacing his comments on the paintings by a history of the vicissitudes of the term since the 19th century, concluding that “it is the tension between the Brecht-Benjamin argument for [realism as] ideological combativeness in art and the Trotsky-Adorno insistence on the necessity of art’s formal self-definition that lies at the heart of this exhibition.” My trouble with this is that either reality, like God, is one or it is manifold. In which case it is hard to see why, on pragmatic grounds, any successful art should be denied the epithet “realist.”

In the early 20th century, many artists concluded that reality had been dispersed so thoroughly by modernity that it could only be grasped in abstraction, or indeed, after Nietzsche, that the art act created realities. Recently, emphasis has shifted to the mediated character of the real, and the linguistic structures of that mediation. Not abstract forms but codes, stereotypes, and simulations from which no final signified can be extracted, are supposed to be the only strata available to any representation claiming the name “realist.” This, in turn, suggests a “realism of realities” compounded from a plurality of layers and signs in formats wherein latitude, event, and guise might collide in ways that resemble some overall phenomenology of things in general.

If you think about it, the closest activity to this model may be that of curating, so that the most “realist” work here was the show itself. Roberts in this view becomes a meta-artist engaged in representation of metareality through the selective deployment of diverse images in a sensitive yet neutralizing medium, namely gallery space. In a discourse that places a premium on the critical, what better exponent could there be than the critic-curator as artist? Conversely, it fits that the best work on the walls here was that in which artists acted as critic-curators of their own work. If realism here was a function of this same criterion, then the most likely examples of “realism in one artwork” were to be found in Art & Language’s and Terry Atkinson’s self-reflexive montages. They imply that the only reality available to scrupulous representation is the condition of art-practice itself—Art’s relationship to general reality presumably being allegorical. Two other artists here, David Batchelor and David Mabb, made Modernist parody a basis for similar claims. Less satisfactory in this context, because more engaged with the propounding of particular political points, was the work of Rasheed Araeen, Sonia Boyce, and Sue Atkinson. Yet just as collage is not dependent on the value of its raw components, so a curated show can make use of a lesser work to, as it were, triangulate its semantic space.

Of special importance to this project is the caption. Captioning directs images to meaning, thus facilitating the possibility of a “realism effect”—what Roberts calls “Seeing-as.” Here, the critic-curator is at an advantage, for what fuller caption— what more effective direction to “see X as Y”—could there be than the exhibition catalogue?

Brian Hatton

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