The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art [SMoCA] presents "Natural Histories: Realism Revisited," an exhibition exploring the current resurgence of realism by a new generation of international artists, including Sandow Birk, Valerie Demianchuk, Walton Ford, Isabella Kirkland, Michael Landy, Julia Latané, Mariele Neudecker, Roxy Paine, Michelle Segre and Erick Swenson.
Art viewers have always been enthralled by realism: think of the magical detail of a 17th-century Dutch still-life or the exactitude of John James Audubon's nature studies. Before the advent of photography, realism was the status quo. For well over a century and a half, however, artists have been freed from the need to describe the world around us and have ventured far into the realms of abstraction and photographic media. Realism, as a style, acquired the pall of academicism and, until recently, was relegated to the margins of the art world.
Curated by Erin Kane, SMoCA's assistant curator, "Natural Histories: Realism Revisited" features 24 works by 10 young artists who are investigating the past, present and future of realism. In their hands, artistic facility is just a starting point: realism becomes a conceptual choice rather than an end in itself. These artists captivate and tantalize us with their powers of technique. Their work honors painstaking, age-old artistic practices, in the midst of a 21st-century digital world. Yet, such breathtaking styles cloak tough and decidedly current subject matter: biodiversity, urban sprawl, political allegory, even genetic engineering. Behind this new virtuoso painting, with its historical veneer, lies a complex, contemporary web of meaning.
In his finely detailed etchings, Michael Landy refers to traditional botanical studies and to the prints of Albrecht Dürer. His subjects, however, are the weeds that persistently poke through cracks of neglected city sidewalks. Valerie Demianchuk makes delicate, hyper-real drawings of decaying vegetation into contemporary vanitas -- stark but beautiful reminders of mortality for a society in pursuit of perpetual youth. Roxy Paine explores the convergence of science, nature and art in replicas of plants and fungi that are playfully real and perfectly crafted. Erick Swenson displays his portraits of animals like traditional busts. Are these trophies of a hunt or the artist's apotheosis of the natural kingdom?
The scale of works in the exhibition also carries content. In her over-sized sculptures of grass and mushrooms, Julia Latané suggests a genetically-enhanced world where nature takes over. Michelle Segre blurs the line between reality and imagination in the colossal sculptures of her Alice-in-Wonderland world. Mariele Neudecker bases her fastidious, miniature tableaux on much-lauded 19th-century German romantic paintings. The romantic tradition was later co-opted by Hitler as an alternative to "degenerate" modern art. Neudecker preserves these sentimental landscapes in vitrines, reclaimed from the evils of fascist propaganda.
Historicism, in the hands of this generation of artists, is an opportunity for quiet irony. Isabella Kirkland paints brilliantly colored, exacting oils that, at first glance, seem like an homage to historical still-life paintings but in fact feature plants and exotic creatures that are now on the verge of extinction. Sandow Birk works in the gentle manner of the 19th-century American Hudson River School painters, yet incongruously documents the sites of federal prisons, isolated by necessity in some of the most picturesque landscapes in the country. Walton Ford paints with a verisimilitude akin to that of John James Audubon and looks at the foibles of contemporary politics and culture through his elaborate animal allegories.