Sometimes it can seem as if realism is the Rodney Dangerfield of the contemporary art world: it just doesn't get enough respect.
Broadly speaking, realism means portraying things more or less as they look in real life, as opposed to abstraction, for example. However, because of its general faithfulness to appearances, some have derided realism as retrograde.
To show off some gems from the museum's permanent collection and help viewers understand realism, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has mounted the third installment in a series of shows focusing on major art styles. From Nature: Realist Works in MMoCA's Permanent Collection follows shows on abstraction and expressionism. It runs through summer 2010.
There are some important but little-seen works on view here; you'll encounter big names like Henri Matisse, Andrew Wyeth, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. Curator Rick Axsom has included paintings, prints, photography and sculpture, with artwork spanning the mid-19th century to the current decade.
I was fascinated by Jeanette Pasin Sloan's color lithograph from 1978, Silver Bowls. It's a classic still life subject: vessels sitting atop draped fabric. But what makes Sloan's print interesting are the bold colors of the striped fabric and the way in which she handles reflections. It's no small feat to accurately show how the metal bowls would reflect the striped fabric and suggest the three-dimensionality of the vessels.
In the realm of photography, Edward Weston's 1927 photo of a muscular, androgynous nude stands out, as does a photo by Carl Corey, a Wisconsin artist who was featured in MMoCA's last Triennial (the museum's survey of the best Wisconsin contemporary art). Corey's brand of realism illuminates the mundane but slightly mysterious spaces of the modern world, like desolate highways. There's an appealing starkness to his shot of a sound-barrier wall along a roadway at twilight (or is it dawn?).
Sylvia Plimack Mangold's work is, in some ways, a bridge between realism and abstraction. She's represented here by a watercolor of her trademark subject: hardwood floors and the corners where walls meet. That may sound boring if you're unfamiliar with Mangold's work, but there's a kind of Zen pull to her linear, understated approach. Her work presents both a recognizable, realistic subject, and an abstracted play of lines.
While this show is not meant as some sort of all-encompassing history of realism in modern and contemporary art, it does give a sense of what realism can do: offer a social critique, reveal the inner character of a portrait subject, explore optical phenomena and much more. This show's compact size belies its impact and is well worth a visit.