I am sitting at the top of a large Victorian terrace house in the studio of Nathan Walsh. I have just come from next door, the house of the artist Clive Head, and last night I had dinner at the home of another artist, Steve Whitehead, a few streets away. It is hard not to think I am in the midst of something here, a development in art, I still hesitate to call it a movement that has brought together a group of artists, including Walsh, Head and Whitehead, who share a common aesthetic. A realist aesthetic. In Walsh's studio a large painting is clamped to the easel in front of me. It's an impressive thing by anyone's standards and is almost complete, although Walsh is quick to point out some of the spatial relationships have still to be resolved. It's a comment that passes me by at first, although later I realised its significance. The painting shows a street in the commercial downtown area of Barcelona, running from a sort of paved square in the foreground towards a sharply delineated perspectival vanishing point. All the way along it there are people busily going about their business. One of those people is the artist himself, painted as if striding in a hurry, and holding a supermarket carrier bag. 'It's not something I normally do', Walsh tells me. 'I'm not trying to be the Hitchcock of painting, always having a cameo role in my own works. I just needed a figure there to balance the composition'. It's a statement that brings me up a little short. I suspect most people looking at the work of Walsh, as well as that of Head and Whitehead, would label them 'Photorealists', and as everyone knows Photorealists don't mess with the photograph. It is their source material, their touchstone of 'truth'. One has only to think of the press release for Damien Hirst's 2005 New York show, The Elusive Truth, in which it was claimed, 'Photorealism was an invention of the 1960s. Take a photograph, and copy it meticulously, until your painting and the photograph are indistinguishable.' Walsh is a good artist, but on this basis he seems to be a 'bad' Photorealist, since he cannot be said to copy a photograph meticulously. He adds things, like himself holding a carrier bag. That brings me back to his concern for the 'resolution of the spatial relationships' Surely those relationships they are already 'resolved' by the camera before the artist has even started painting so that space in a Photorealist painting is simply the same as it would be in real life. Despite being a very good painter Walsh admits he is probably a bad Photorealist painter. 'I suppose I am a bad Photorealist painter', he tells me. 'But that's because I am not really a Photorealist painter'.
This is by no means a unique claim. Neither Head next door nor Whitehead a few streets away will admit to being a Photorealist painter either. Without hesitation each of them will only admit to being a realist. 'I can admit there is influence from Photorealists like Richard Estes', says Walsh, 'but there is influence from Canaletto too, so does that make me a Baroque painter?' It is a fair point, and one I am beginning to grasp. The longer one looks at these works the more one begins to realise they are doing very different things in terms of their spatial organisation to almost anything that came out of the American Photorealist tradition. The atmosphere in the works is also very different, being decidedly English, or at least European, in their colour and tonal values, all of which again fits uneasily with the idea of someone merely copying a photograph. Although one might take issue with the apparent ignorance of the statement on Photorealism that accompanied Hirst's New York show, the fact remains that Walsh is doing something rather different to Photorealism something exciting and new.
Realist painting is, of course, one of the most misunderstood forms of art. Part of this is the legacy of modernist critics, in whose eyes realism sinned on two counts the insistent representation of reality and the apparent denial of the expressive signature mark of the artist. Indeed, the only modernist critic I can think of who had anything good to say about realism was probably Herbert Read, who saw it as a perfectly legitimate response to the world within a range of responses. In an ideal world each type of artist, Read suggested, 'could express himself in the manner which he found most apt. Constructivists and superrealists, realists and expressionists, could live and work side by side in perfect amity.' Turn to another modernist critic such as Clement Greenberg, however, and one finds nothing but a dogmatic denial that realism has any place in the modern world. Such art was, for Greenberg, little more than kitsch, and although he admitted he did like some realist paintings, this was tempered by a belief that realist art was 'not particularly important aesthetically.' In the light of such views it is not surprising that even today critics often wrongly view realism, and especially Photorealism, as a form of conceptual kitsch. For example the London-based painter of still lifes, Mustafa Hulusi, could not be allowed into this year's Venice Biennale for the aesthetic quality of his Photorealist paintings; rather he is presented as someone who registers 'the whiff of fascist and communist propaganda in our culture, along with the double nature of kitsch.' The success of Hulusi is in going along with such misinterpretations even when his images speak of something far more substantial.
To some extent Photorealism blew away the views of Greenberg and certainly in North America, since the 1970s, there has been more of an interest in realist art. Indeed, if it was not for the continuing obsession of trendy architects and designers with minimalism, there is no doubt that the majority of people today would agree the most significant American art movement of the 1970s was Photorealism. Certainly it was the most interesting art to come out of America at that time, not only in philosophical terms but, contrary to Greenberg's belief, on an aesthetic level. By this I mean that, at its best, American Photorealism recorded the aesthetic response of a group of artists to the often urban, and unashamedly American, physical world they inhabited. All true art is rooted in such aesthetic experiences, and is the sensory response to being a living, feeling, sensing human body in a material environment. As a mechanical device, photography might be seen as a distancing factor between such experiences and the painted response that an artist might make, but this distancing is a necessary element too, since all raw experience is too personal to be made into art. To make art is not to record personal experience , it is not the 'spontaneous outpouring of feeling' , it is the universalising of experience. That is to say, in order to make art it is important to have highly personal experiences, but those experiences need to be distanced from the individual before they can be shared with others. It is only in this way that art can be used to ask the most profound existential questions, such as is my experience of life like your experience of life, or am I alone? So. by using the photograph the American Photorealists took their highly personal experiences of the often mundane places they knew intimately, and distanced them through the camera to share with others.
That said, all art movements begin with vitality and end in cliche, and this is as true of American Photorealism as any other art movement. After an initial surprise at the appearance of photograph-like paintings in the 1970s, coming on the heels of the dominance of abstraction in the 1950s and 60s, there was very little development and many Photorealist artists, including some big names, turned into what seemed like nothing more than photographic enlarging machines. Their skill might still be remarkable on a technical level, but it is an undeniable fact that American Photorealism has failed to evolve from its initial exuberance, resulting in a devitalised form of art. The blame for this lies, paradoxically, in the use of photograph. In the end copying a photograph is not enough, even if that photograph really does relate to an intense experience. By rejecting a straightforward version of Photorealism Walsh is clearly aware of this, and as our conversation turns to other artists Walsh is frank about what he sees as the failings of a number of current New York painters whose work he describes as 'too mechanical'. This he says is a problem of being enslaved to the photograph. 'Photographs do capture a particular moment and sense of place, but there are technical issues and they can depersonalise things too much.' As this suggests, there is a delicate balancing act taking place, which in Walsh's case involves combining several photographs and using other tools alongside it. While photography is a useful tool to record a great deal of visual information about the world, it cannot record a sensual experience , that is to say it cannot record an aesthetic experience. For these elements Walsh uses other tools, such as drawing, to rehumanise the experience being described. In fact one of Walsh's favourite 'tools' is his feet, and he will walk a city's streets for many hours, not only to find subject matter, but to gain a sense of place. 'The New York painting, Leaving the New York Inn (2006), is a good example of that, ' he tells me. 'Although it does look like some quite familiar Photorealist paintings, it actually comes from the excitement I had of being in New York for the first time. It is about a sense of place.
If the photograph is problematic in the way it over-distances an image from an experience, there are also technical problems. The National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Award exhibition in London this year was dominated by a number of Chuck Close-like Photorealist portraits, presumably due to the presence on the judging panel of the realist painter Jason Brooks. Such work always has an impressive technical quality, but it often fails as art because of its veracity to the single photographic source. It fails to overcome a problem inherent to all photography that is anathema to painting, namely the destruction of space. The primary purpose of painting is always to define and explore the nature of spatial relationships, but the photograph invariably flattens space. In a portrait this can create an intriguing and iconic image as the face is pushed onto the picture plane, but the distortions this imposes onto the face create something that is invariably grotesque. Walk up St Martin's Lane from the National Portrait Gallery and you enter Chinatown where many of the restaurants display squashed ducks in their windows, and seeing them is like revisiting the Photorealist portraits you have just seen in the NPG. Ducks squashed in the windows of shops or faces squashed against a spaceless picture plane, the result is equally disturbing. Yet it is not just Chuck Close's followers who have this problem, it is apparent in Close's work too. It also affects non-photorealist painters who rely on photographs, such as Stella Vine, whose recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford showed ample evidence for the deadening effect of photographic space when it is imported unthinkingly into a painting.
Space is just as much a problem with a Photorealist cityscape as a Photorealist portrait. In essence, photography destroys space, whereas painting seeks to create it. In defining and exploring space the painter does not necessarily have to create naturalistic space, but he or she must create believable space that will allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief when looking at the artifice of a painting. This is true of all painting, from that of the abstractionist to the expressionist to the hyperrealist, and without an understanding of this principle a painting does not exist as a work of art. It is a point that seems amply proven by Walsh's Barcelona (2007), a work that grew, he says, out of exploring the city on foot and enjoying the sense of life in its commercial centre. Although it is a painting that has a photographic base, Walsh has not used just one photograph, he has composed many photographs into the final painting. That process of composition is significant because what he is organising is in fact space. He does not rely on the pre-given flat space of the photograph, rather he creates a painted space that comes from other sources, such as his memory of the place, or perhaps drawings he has made, and most of all a knowledge of how historic artists constructed space in their paintings. These elements are rendered first into a pencil study, where issues of spatial relationships and composition are developed and resolved, and only then does it become a painted artwork. 'The straightforward copy of a photograph doesn't give you a proper sense of space,' Walsh says. 'You almost need to create the space from scratch, using the photographs only as a guide. If you don't do that it won't be convincing as a painting.
The way Walsh constructs pictorial space takes two forms. The first is a horizontal extension and the second an illusion of depth. Both are exaggerated so that neither method results in the reproduction of nature; yet in such exaggerations Walsh has sought to create believable space. We are convinced into thinking these are images of the world as it is, but the truth is that space in these paintings is not really like the space we inhabit at all. They seem to prove Quintallian's old adage, 'The perfection of art is to conceal art.' In Walsh's painting Venice, Late Afternoon (2007), for example, the horizontal width of the image extends for more than 180 degrees so that if one was to stand in Venice on the nominal spot where the painting is set one would have to be able to look out of one's left ear, and straight ahead, and out of one's right ear simultaneously to achieve anything like the same effect as looking at the artwork. The wide angle view has been compacted onto a canvas only a few feet across, something that is more than any single photograph taken with a standard camera could ever show us. But it is also more than a wide-angle camera lens could do as the camera cannot compensate for the distortions of perspective in the way an artist can. The wide-angle camera would create a distorted and mechanical grotesque, whereas the artist creates a humanised image. The technical difficulty of this task should not be underestimated as it is not just a matter of taking two, three or more photographs, each in a different direction, and gluing them together. Such an approach would be equally grotesque, as shown by the photomontage images made by Hockney in the 1980s, such as Place Furstenberg, Paris, August 7,8,9, 1985 (1985). What Walsh has had to do is create an artificial sense of space on the canvas, which is not directly related to the space we experience in Venice, but is a fabricated fiction that works purely in artistic terms. This fiction might be convincing, so that we could almost believe we are looking at the real Venice, but it is nonetheless an artifice.
Although there is real quality in the way Walsh extends space in this lateral way, my personal view is that Walsh's most individual works are concerned with the illusion of deep space within the canvas. In these there is a real sense of an artist balancing the need to maintain the illusion of reality with the desire to push the illusion of very deep space to its limits. Such a balance is relatively easy in a rural landscape as we are used to artists creating a close foreground and then jumping suddenly to a far distance. We do not ask them to fill in much of the intervening scenery. A cityscape is, however, far less forgiving of such traditional devices, and will not readily allow whole blocks of buildings to disappear in the name of artistic economy. Other devices have to be used instead, as shown by the painting Barcelona being worked on in Walsh's studio. It sets the viewer at ground level in a small square in the centre of the city, with a street driving off straight ahead of us at a very sharp perspectival angle. If you stop a while and analyse this image you will start to notice how sharp the perspective has become, and how this has resulted in a very deep illusion of depth into the painting. Yet it is a measure of the artist's skill that we are still convinced into thinking that this artificial construction of space on the other side of the picture plane is like the real space we inhabit on our side of the picture plane. With Prague, Morning Sun (2006) the sense of depth is even greater and the artificiality even stronger, but I suspect most people looking at this painting would be convinced Prague really is like that.
These devices show an important element in Walsh's work that he shares with almost all serious English realists, namely a willingness to root his work within the history of art. These are not copies of photographs for many reasons, but the most important is surely that they are artworks located within a tradition of aesthetic art. In our meeting Wash admits this to me by bringing up the name of an artist I did not expect to hear, the English Regency painter Richard Parkes Bonnington. I did expect to hear the name of Canaletto, particularly as Walsh has painted Venice, but once Bonnington is mentioned the relationship starts to become clear. It was Bonnington's example that led Walsh to Verona in the first place, and Walsh's painting Via Capello, Verona (2007) does show a strong affinity with Bonnington's watercolour The Corsa Saint' Anastasia, Verona, with the Palace of Prince Maffet. (1826). Yet it is not simply a case of shared subject matter, it is about a shared conception of space. Indeed, it could be that the reason Canaletto is not such an obvious influence in Walsh's mind is that he shares an English conception of space with Bonnington that he cannot share with a Venetian such as Canaletto. The relationship of identity and space is such that it is not only in Walsh's views of Verona that one can discern echoes of Bonnington's 'English space', but in Walsh's paintings of a New York that Bonnington could never have imagined. Leaving the New York Inn, for example, shows an arguable influence from Bonnington's A View Of Prince Maffei's Palace, Verona (1826).
Like the other contemporary English realists with whom he associates, Walsh's work is a complex construction that draws on many influences, including American Photorealism, but also on an aesthetics of place and a strong sense of the importance of art's history. Through these works we not only see places that seem familiar, but we talk with artists old and new whose influence has come to bear on Walsh. That is the mark of all good art and essential for all great art. But to my mind the significance of these paintings and drawings always seems to come back to Walsh himself. They are not reproductions of photographs, because that would be too inhuman and too impersonal. Rather they are expressions of the often highly personal experiences of particular times and specific places that have meaning for Walsh. The quality of the works lies not only in their technical skill but in Walsh's ability to universalise his experiences to given them wider resonance.
As I leave his studio for some reason a very different type of art comes to mind, expressionism. I recall that many of the precursors to expresionist art were in fact types of realist , think of Caspar David Friedrich or Christen Kobke. It all makes me wonder whether it would be possible now to have paintings that combine the highly personalised art of expressionism with the often depersonalised art of Photorealism. It would be a sort of 'expressive realism' that would not be cold, mechanical and distant, but expressive of something deeply human. It would not be too personal, but would achieve aesthetic distance. Perhaps that would be the next step in the evolution of Photorealism and perhaps in the work of Nathan Walsh I have just seen it.Sub Titleblack textnormal text