With the advent of photography around two centuries ago in France, art gained a new gold standard. Critics came to realize that works could do more than just resemble the real world: they could be the real world, devoid of any artist’s touch. Eventually, this hyperrealistic fervor invaded the world of painting, and so-called “photorealism” was born. Gerhard Richter and Robert Bechtle aren’t praised for their masterful stylistic sensibility, but for their lack thereof: no trace of the artist’s hand can be seen in their paintings.
The development of hyperrealistic painting coincided with vast technological change even after photography’s nascence. Televisions, computers and, later, cell phones, came into existence. Increasingly, the external world in its three-dimensional glory was mediated by two-dimensional screens. Today, it’s worse than ever. The diminished and carefully curated world of our device-screens is becoming more real than the fertile world around us.
Rebels against this status quo will be welcomed by Lucca Colombelli’s current show at W. Gallery. Colombelli seeks not to render a three-dimensional subject in a two-dimensional canvas, but rather, as Claude Monet endorsed many years ago, to “convey what is alive between [him] and the subject.” While this idea is far from novel, Colombelli’s execution is near-flawless. Colombelli finds his home not in the salmony tinge of Monet’s haystacks or the livid shade of Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, but in jubilatory chartreuses (if souls have a color, this is the one). Yet for their similar color schemes, his paintings differ starkly in sentiment.
“Light Through the Leaves” uses frantic gestural brushstrokes to render the sun shining down onto some trees. Everything melts into everything else, like the structure of a de Kooning “Excavation” imposed onto a landscape. It looks as if the earth and sky could, at any moment, break into a million dusty fragments. This is a painting of a specific outdoor scene, yes, but it’s something more: a portrait of anxiety, uncertainty and groundlessness. Conversely, Colombelli’s depiction of the same scene in “Light Through the Leaves No.2” is comprised of staunch, self-certain marks much like those of Alex Katz’s outdoor scenes (especially those late-career fallen leaves which Richard Gray presented in “Autumn” a few months ago). His brushstrokes here are discrete regions that form a cogent whole. Some particularly well-delineated regions seem to shimmer, jiggling the whole thing loose. Again, viewers will notice something behind the nature scene they’re viewing: strength, ipseity, self-transcendence.
Colombelli’s landscapes acknowledge the fact that every painting is, in some meaningful way, a self-portrait. The conflicting emotions they evoke get at something bigger: that often, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our moods do not believe in each other.” We feel elated one moment and dejected the next, yet go on living as if our feelings form some meaningful whole. You can take that two ways: either it’s eternally tragic (oh woe of our human condition!), or it’s pretty damn funny. I think Colombelli would endorse the second view. (I’ll admit that his diametrically opposed renditions of “Light Through the Leaves” aroused a chuckle in me.)
Rounding out the show is an earthy installation by Maeve McGale called “The Wishful Willow.” McGale has filled a room in the gallery’s rear with an assemblage (made of wire, cheesecloth and feathers, among other things) which recreates the underground portion of a tree. Its network of roots requires patience and limbo skills to navigate. At the bottom of the trunk, she’s installed a light that ebbs and flows in brightness. Its augmenting and diminishing seems random at first, but if you sit with it for long enough, you’ll internalize a subtle rhythm, not unlike the regular lub-dub that emanates from your chest. McGale and Colombelli have made concrete the beating human heart behind our views of nature.
“Common Ground: Lucca Colombelli and Maeve McGale” is on view at W. Gallery, 600 West Van Buren through December 31.