A wide range of representation at AS220

Making it real
By GREG COOK  |  July 17, 2012

MOTLEY CREW Telfort’s The Unit.

One of the notable developments of recent years is the return of realism, particularly hardcore realist painting from studio models. After a century of the fine art world championing abstraction, who would have thought that Lucian Freud, who spent much of his career painting naked people lying around his studio and died a year ago, would be hailed as one of our era's greatest artists?

Academies have quietly formed or regained notice by rigorously teaching the realist fundamentals — painting from live models and so on — and in the process reclaiming skills that the fine art world has nearly forgotten. It's partly just the pendulum swinging back. It's partly a craving for art that is sturdy and skilled in an era in which so much work comes not from the artist's own hand but is mechanically produced or jobbed out to assistants.

But the art world remains somewhat aloof from hardcore realism. John Currin, one of the most famed artists of the past 15 years, paints an ironic realism cynically riffing on Penthouse pornography. The earnest realist painters exhibiting at AS220 through July 28 represent a movement mainly operating at the edges of the fine art world but inching closer to the center.

SURREAL TWINNING Green’s Momma Always Told Me . . . .
At AS220's main gallery (115 Empire Street, Providence), Kerry Smith of Foster offers loose, brushy paintings of nude studio models in various seated or reclining poses. He often ignores whatever they're sitting on and the surroundings to focus on the bodies, rendered in a quick, charismatically offhand style, partly caricatured but based sharp-looking. There's a sense of the artist's personality in the pictures; they feel true to one person's particular way of looking. Smith's caricaturing and use of heavy outlines in black, red, or blue, that are often only partially filled in, recalls the great New York painter Alice Neel. The difference is that Neel channeled her subjects' personalities. In her paintings, you feel two people relating to each other across a room, often seemingly staring into each other's eyes. In Smith's paintings, there's little eye contact. His attention is less on the person than the body, an acute observation of anatomy, the way light falls across the forms, and weight.

AS220's Project Space (93 Mathewson Street) features oil painters Eric Telfort of Providence and Andrae Green of Amherst, Massachusetts. Telfort studied at RISD and the New York Academy of Art, which emphasizes traditional representational techniques. Those chops are manifest in his elaborately staged allegorical scenes. In Maya, You know Teachers have good hair, a woman, pointing a stick at a blank white board, seems to be giving a school lesson to a group of shoes lined up in a living room. Paintings from his Science Fiction War Portraits of Colored People often feature Telfort wearing padded boxing headgear and wielding makeshift rifles assembled from cardboard tubes, a soap carton, and a knife. Perhaps he's aiming to say something about violence, masculinity, blackness (Telfort is African-American), but the scenes are so absurd that their strangeness becomes the focus.

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