Last week I proposed a drinking game. You'd listen to the words Seattle Art Museum used to describe the impressionist paintings in the galleries, and you'd drink every time you heard an overused adjective. The repeat-offending adjectives turned out to be "intimate," "domestic," and "enchanting."
My point was to emphasize that every exhibition is sold a certain way by its organizers. Sometimes the adjectives reveal nothing more than just that—the attempt to sell you on the art. But other times, descriptions can reveal affinities that artists themselves want to claim.
One word I almost never hear to describe contemporary art is "realism," the term having gone out of fashion sometime around 1900, unless it's attached to "sur-" or "hyper-." That's why I was surprised yesterday to see the word used twice, on two very different bodies of works by Seattle artists Jenny Heishman and Eric Elliott, at James Harris Gallery. (Their shows close tomorrow, so hurry.
Dressing Room is six wall collages and two sculptures by Heishman. The title feels right because the gallery contains a series of repeating elements and materials that can be mixed and matched like the separates in the closet of a 1980s woman executive. Recurring: a silhouette of a vase or vessel, brown cardboard, and flat and colorful squiggly lines that look like they were digitally drawn in crude early software. There's all that graphic flatness, yet each collage is made on a cardboard box with the flaps spread on the wall, so the collage sticks out from the wall, leaving a pocket of actual dimension.
And speaking of actual-ness...real-ness? Realism? How these two relate: discuss. Meanwhile... The two sculptures by Heishman are vertical wedges of raw cardboard pulp. On one side, the wedges look like piles of shredded beef. On the flip side, they're flat, revealing that they were formerly united with a flat surface from which they've been removed to stand alone. One sculpture is two brown wedges back to back with a space in between. Another is a brown wedge on a shelf that's low on the wall. The flat side of the wedge and the wall are both painted white, but the artist has left empty space between the wedge and the wall. Your mind puts together what the artist keeps apart. That work was my favorite in the exhibition, the least high-minded and serious somehow, the one that came the closest to capturing Heishman's mischievous side.
Heishman's works are formal at heart. Her brand of realism, according to the text, comes from "a Nouveau Realist sensibility, placing focus on gestures, recognizable forms, and simple contingencies." That kind of realism is based on concreteness and directness.
That's not the only kind, of course.
The realism in Elliott's show Overgrown looks more readily like realism. As in, when Elliott draws and paints plants, you see plants. Keep in mind that Elliott is no more interested in plants themselves than Morandi was interested in bottles except as test subjects on which to perform experiments in color, brushstroke, and composition. Elliott has gone through periods when his paintings of plants were so thick that all you really saw were paintings of paint.
But the new works bring to the fore a latent influence of Elliott's: life drawing. These two large charcoal drawings on paper and two smaller paintings are essentially life drawings of plants. And yet not.
I walked in, stepped in front of the charcoal drawing Tall Plant, and laughed out loud. Elliott's art has made me think, but it's never brought me joy before, and as far as I know, it's never tried.
Tall Plant is a tall plant. Six feet tall, drawn in detail on white paper using charcoal. It looks austerely pretty at first. Like one of those elaborate decorative panels of foliage that are supposed to make everything look romantic.
Except Tall Plant is way overgrown, so this tall plant is also a fat plant. And it's standing in a pot the size of a salad bowl. Suddenly instead of classical it's comical. It's like a Muppet. A lovable, masterfully constructed Muppet.
In the real world, this plant would wobble and fall over. Elliott used true-to-life details to create an untrue-to-life portrait. The gallery calls this "almost hyperrealist" but also "realist abstraction." I think I know what "realist abstraction" means in this context: that you can, and I did, get lost in the underbrush of the exquisite details so that all you can see for a while are shapes and forms. Back and forth I went, from realism to abstraction to realism to abstraction. You should see what Elliott can do with shading. Yet I didn't feel sheer admiration for Elliott's art, I felt affection, too. That's also new.
And that experience opened up more possibilities in looking at Elliott's two paintings at the gallery. Though they're still experiments in color and form, now I also began imagining stories in them; the paintings started happening. It's hard to explain, but if this is what a little dose of "realism" can do, I'm for it.