PAM's "Richard Estes' Realism": On Reflection, Is Estes For Real?

Richard Estes' "Diner" (1971)
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution
(photo: Lee Stalsworth)
There’s reason enough to visit Portland Museum of Art at any time, but now would be a particularly rewarding one, for its exhibition of some fifty works by Richard Estes, considered by many to be the master of contemporary photorealism. From his earliest roots in New York, in a challenging environment at best (since Pop and Abstract Art were all the rage), to his continual enhancement of painting from photographs, to his development and perfecting of hyperrealism, his incredibly personal perspective is astonishing. Estes’ work was and remains a stunning testament to his ability to see beyond the (literal) reflections of his world. While his subjects, from those iconic storefronts of New York City in his earliest efforts to the gradual inclusion of fellow big city residents to the most recent landscapes, are instantly identifiable, there is definitely more there than first meets the eye. The clue for approaching his pieces lies in his own description of the creative process, quoted on the wall of this exhibition; where many perceive an artist throwing herself or himself into a work to the point of exhaustion and collapse, he states that the reality is that it’s a “pretty calculated, sustained, and slow process”, where “the effect can be one of spontaneity, but that’s part of the artistry”.

Some might be fooled by the apparent faithful reproduction of real cityscapes like “The Diner” above, thinking this represents a rather uninspired copying, albeit in great detail. That would be to miss the whole point, mainly that there’s more there there. It’s all about the geometry of his vision, the outstanding light, the more-complex-than-reality dimension. One is reminded of carnival mirrors, though Estes’ images don’t distort; it’s tempting to assert that they actually seem to improve on the reality they depict. Rarely is real life this ordered, uncluttered, pristine, and, at least in works from the earliest periods, mostly unpopulated. The majority of the pieces on display are from private collections (including more than a dozen from the artist himself), affording a hitherto unmatched opportunity to appreciate the evolution of his body of work. These days, works like these aren’t seen as fashionable by some, in the same way that Wyeths or even Norman Rockwell are viewed as too literal. Most truly gifted artists endure the changing tides of popular opinion, ultimately emerging as original in vision and style. Estes, still at work today, is one such creative force.

The choices of particular works to be included in this show are crucial to understanding the journey of this unique artist. Selected by the independent curator Patterson Sims along with the museum’s own Curator of Contemporary Art, Jessica May, these chosen creations are truly representative of where Estes began and where he has come, as well as what he has captured along the way. Captured, indeed; it’s a truly captivating show.

The exhibition will continue at PAM until September 7th. Also currently on view are Andrea Sulzer’s “Throughout Sideways” and George Daniell’s “Picturing Monhegan Island”, not to mention the museum’s ongoing exhibitions of its own collection. October 2nd to January 4th will feature an exhibition of “Treasures from the Berger Collection: British Art, 1400-2000”. Just don’t forget you’ve got to catch that return train trip, or you’ll have to stay over in the city. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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