Backlash: Neo-realists seem stagy, frozen

Any form or trend big enough to matter eventually evokes a backlash. Abstract expressionism, pop art, and minimalism– they’re all big enough to matter. They dominated mid-century art in America, and so it only seems natural and a little predictable that the 70’s would throw up a quiet countermovement. At that time, a group of artists, many of whom worked in these modernist styles, turned their backs on irony and abstraction to return to a more traditional, figurative style. This summer, the University of Virginia Art Museum offers a modest sample of work by these neo-realists.
Of course, these artists weren’t working in a void, and it would have been nearly impossible (and also pointless) to resurrect older traditions wholesale. So it should come as little surprise that these paintings make some concessions to their time and place. The strange, dramatic, and sometimes even garish elements of the work included in “Opting For Realism: American Painting in the 1970’s” betray a realism tempered by a thoroughly modernist world.
Jack Beal’s “The Farm,” a hyper-detailed painting of two casually dressed artists drawn around the corner of a pig pen, seems to draw some basic elements from photography, though it takes them to an extreme. Nearly every element in the frame is in sharp, hard-lined focus– from the painter’s thinning hair to the bent, leafy trees growing up a hill in the background, which gives the painting a look of unreality.
This is only reinforced by the people and animals in the painting. They look not so much captured-in-the-moment or posed, but rather frozen. The painting, with its obsessive attention to detail and placement, seems to create a scene without movement.
For many of the artists included in the exhibit, modern drama seems to have made the most lasting impression. Almost all of the artwork has very mannered, dramatic elements. As with Beal’s piece, subjects are very carefully placed, giving them the look of stage actors rather than more natural subjects. 
Other artists have also employed a stagy, blatantly artificial lighting scheme. Check, for example, Alfred Leslie’s portrait of a young teen in “Dina Cheyette.” His imagined light source– a low, low angle key light– gives his subject more or less the same effect as when someone, trying to look scary, sticks a flashlight under their chin. In this case, it actually makes the girl look pretty creepy. Other details, such as oversized, veiny hands, only add to the mood.
These artists may have returned to a figurative style, but they did so in such a way as to give their work a strange, distancing artificiality– just the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect in an exhibit of realism.

“Opting for Realism: American Painting in the 1970’s” runs through August 18 at the University of Virginia Art Museum on Rugby Road. 924-3592