Editor's note: The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Natural Histories: Realism Revisited

May 29 - September 12, 2004


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. (right: Michelle Segre, "Mushroom" (detail), 2002, beeswax, papier-maché, foam, metal, paint, 98 x 53 x 59 inches. Courtesy of the artist)

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. (right: Sandow Birk, "Coxsackie Correctional Facility, West Coxsackie, New York" from the "PRISONATION" series, 2002, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery)

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. (right: Isabella Kirkland, "Collection," 2002, oil and alkyd on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, Courtesy of Feature Inc. Photo: Oren Slor)



JUNE 10, 6:30 PM

Award-winning artist Hedi Moran demonstrates oil-painting techniques, as seen in her vivid and colorful still-lifes. Moran teaches at the Scottsdale Artists' School. Meet in the Museum lobby. Free.



JUNE 24, 6:30 PM

Erin Kane, SMoCA's assistant curator, looks at the purposes of realism, from naturalistic description to covert meaning. She will consider the parallels in approach between historical art and the contemporary works on view in the exhibition. Meet in the Museum lobby. Free.



JULY 22, 6:30 PM

Erin Kane, assistant curator, and Morris Martin, a John J. Audubon aficionado, discuss the Audubon-inspired paintings of contemporary artist Walton Ford. Meet in the Museum lobby. Free.



"Natural Histories: Realism Revisited" was organized by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Presentation made possible in part by Wells Fargo and the SMoCA Salon. In-kind support provided by AmeriSuites, Scottsdale Old Town. Curatorial research and development for 2003-04 is supported by Sara and David Lieberman and Alice and David Olsan. 2003-04 educational activities made possible in part by Jeffrey Wagner.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library Magazine for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.