I’d like to draw your attention to a painting by Richard Combes, Barn Door Lock. Combes describes his art overall as naturalist, but this particular painting can be appropriately described as photorealist. It demonstrates the paradox of photorealistic painting: if it were a photograph, we would hardly glance at it. It would be nicely composed, but not a remarkable photograph. And yet, because it is not a photograph, it dazzles us.
Photorealistic painting most often dazzles through its weird combination of talent and obsessiveness. Most realist painters hate to hear the compliment, “That looks just like a photograph!” Photorealists take this quality to its outer limits, intentionally producing something so photographic as to be overwhelming.
I personally am almost totally indifferent to this attraction of photorealism. Most realists who are not photorealists are repelled by photorealism. Its flood of detail strikes us as compensating, on the one hand, for a lack of vision, and on the other hand, for frequently quite poor actual painting technique. That said, there is nothing categorically wrong with photorealism. Though its pitfalls are many, it holds within it a path to transcendence, as all modes of art-making do.
We see in Combes’s painting the rare second layer of photorealism, where its profound purpose and potential become clear. That “nice composition” which would merely divert us in a photograph, arrests us in a painting. It tells us that Combes understands his mission is not merely to replicate the image, but to make sense of the world. The composition tells us his gaze is focused; his focused gaze tells us that he takes responsibility, as an artist, for studying the nature of things. It assures us that there is something here worth seeing.
So we find the painting persuading us: “Sit a minute — look.” Studying it, we see remarkable things: not only the individual knots and lines of the wood, but the mild, almost imperceptible, gradient of light dimming from the top of the image to the bottom. Each detail, each partly shaded depression, each tiny highlight where a ridge is angled toward the light, fits harmoniously into this play of light across the entire composition. What appears to be a flat, weathered wall turns out to be a dense field of unlike elements, arranged by sheer force of perception and will into a seemingly natural unity.
Above all else, I am moved — not impressed, moved — by those imperfect arcs which record the path of the metal latch, again and again, over the wood. It has scraped away the red paint, and in the lower arc, begun to carve a depression. The history of this lock is recorded in the arcs: the feel of the cold metal, the sound of the scraping, the muscle memory of opening and closing the door, the weather in which the task was performed.
Again, a photograph would record the same evidence. But the photograph would not dazzle. The photograph would take very little effort, and therefore our response to it would be, “Well, how pretty.” We would spend as little effort in the receiving as the photographer spent in the giving. But the price of painting the same image is painfully high. We know that years of preparation went into the skills deployed here. We know that hours of work, spread over days and months, went into painting this particular image. So we take the image seriously in a way that we could not take a photograph seriously. Combes’s gift to us if his effort. It alerts us to the potential of the image. The outward signifiers of effort involved in its making lead us to the revelation of its inward nature: that Combes passed the world through his consciousness. This inert anecdote of wood, damp, paint, and metal has passed out of mere being and into the realm of mind, and from the realm of mind, it has come back into the world, illuminated and redeemed — in some sense, living. We look at a barn door lock, but what we see is that intense love which treasures the sanctity of the entire world, seeing the same profundity in the mighty and the minuscule, all of them miraculous by nature not of scale, but of being. Receiving this from Combes, we are imbued with it ourselves: our own intense gaze lends life to everything it sees. We ourselves, part inert matter, awaken. This is the transformative power of art.
HEDGES 1 AND 2:
1. If you’re a photorealist I hang out with, I’m not talking about you in my dismissal of most photorealism. I avoid hanging out with artists whose work I don’t like, precisely so that I won’t have to lie to them about their work or, worse, tell the truth.
2. If you’re a photographer I hang out with, I’m not talking about you in my dismissal of most photography. We are awash in a sea of careless, indifferent, and beautiful photographs. Obviously some photographers rise to the level of artists. Most do not. Most artists don’t either.