If you never experienced (or can’t remember) the ‘70s, now’s your chance; the Currier Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “Still Life: 1970s Photorealism,” transports viewers back to a time when muscle cars were cool and diners littered roadsides like Dunkin’ Donuts drive-throughs.
It’s not just the imagery, but the type of imagery that so effectively captures the essence of that time period. The 37 acrylic, oil, print and sculptural pieces are so realistic, it’s possible you won’t notice they’re not enlarged photographs or, in a few cases, actual people until you walk up close to see the brush marks.
“One of our goals of the Currier is to bring in artwork we don’t already have in our collection, or aspects of history that aren’t represented well. Photorealism is one of them,” said Currier curator Kurt Sundstrom during a walk through the exhibition, days before its opening. “We felt that this is something our audience would really gravitate to, both younger and older generations, but especially people who grew up in the ’70s.”
When artists were so realistically painting these iconic images, it was kind of a big deal; the art world was emerging from a period of abstract expressionism and pop art. Seeing these images so large and fantastical resonated with viewers in many ways.
“In the 1979s, you would never see a photograph this big. It was something new, to see the mundane this large,” Sundstrom said. “Now people are looking back on it and rediscovering that this was an important movement, and that this art continues to influence artists.”
Sundstrom thinks part of the artists’ aim was to point out beauty in the everyday. This idea is demonstrated in the glittery, gigantic “Gum Wrapper” by Bruce Everett, and also in the decaying vehicle in “Cab (Westford Series)” by Martin Hoffman, whose scarlet rust contrasts beautifully with its chipped paint.
“It was unusual at the time. If you think about Dutch [painters], they painted in a very realistic way,” Sundstrom said. “But they’re not staging things like in Dutch art, where everything was carefully placed. This is much more like how you would encounter it if you were really walking down the strip in Vegas.”
Though photo technology was not yet adept enough to expand across an entire canvas, these artists were still able to use it to their advantage. Photographs became their “sketches,” and some artists, like Ralph Goings, transferred photography techniques to the canvas, as few painters had ever done before — for example, his “Walt’s Restaurant.” The painting is of a bald man sitting alone in an empty diner. The elements at the front of the painting — the napkin dispensers, a crooked chair, a ketchup bottle — are blurry. However, when you move your eyes onward — out the diner’s window and onto a Coca-Cola sign and blue striped pick-up — the images become clearer. The focus is outside, not inside the diner.
“You can see he’s actually playing with the concept of depth of field,” Sundstrom said.
Car junkies might go geeky over paintings like “Triple Carburetor GTO Candy Apple Blue” by Thomas Blackwell, which depicts a gigantic car engine, or “Stardust Motel” by John Baeder, “Country Chevrolets” by Ralph Goings or “‘64 Galiant” by Robert Bechtle, which all showcase automobiles from the period.
But what will likely draw most eyes are three sculptures: “Lissa Pregnant” by John DeAndrea, a realistic depiction of an angry pregnant woman in her underwear; “Man in Chair with Beer” by Duane Hanson, which is exactly as it sounds; and just around the corner, “Drug Addict,” also by Duane Hanson, and which is also exactly as the title describes.
The Currier is the final stop for this exhibition, which began at and was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery. At the Yale show, “Drug Addict” received particular attention. The curator stuck the sculpture against the gallery stairwell’s brick wall to enhance the illusion. Some viewers were shocked, while others went to inform the front desk. They thought it was a real person.
“A view like this is very powerful in the way it gets you to talk about social issues that were a problem back then but are also a problem now,” Sundstrom said.
The fact that people have mistaken the sculptures for real people shows the likeness and care for detail among all artists represented. To create work that could be mistaken as a real person or a photograph is not easy.
“I think it makes the viewer realize these guys are incredibly good painters,” Sundstrom said. “But for people who grew up in the 1970s, there’s also a certain nostalgia.”
As seen in the January 29, 2015 issue of the Hippo.