by MiChelle Jones


Tinney Contemporary’s summer show has special significance for gallery director Sarah Hays Wilson. It’s the first one she’s organized completely on her own for the gallery, and it focuses on a style close to her own heart: realism. The New Real, an exhibition of work by six nationally recognized artists from around the country, celebrates representational art. It will perhaps surprise (and delight) with its diversity of subjects, and in this way it might also, Wilson hopes, dispel some of the disdain heaped on the genre in the contemporary art world.

“I’ve always gotten frustrated by the notion that realism is something that’s very dated, that has been done before, and that the only way to do meaningful art is to do something that’s totally different than what anyone else is doing,” Wilson says. “I understand that, but at the same time I feel like realism is one of the few genres of art that have continued to be done throughout time.” She thus set out to find artists with fresh approaches to the genre, either through new techniques or unusual imagery.

The New Real showcases fresco portraiture by Ali Cavanaugh, Danny Heller’s interpretations of mid-century architecture, Ron Porter’s surrealistic combinations of tractor-trailers and landscape, and Kay Ruane’s dreamy graphite-and-gouache scenes dabbed with color. Brian Tull’s large-scale cropped images are photorealistic and nostalgic, while Eric Zener explores the depths of swimming pools in his large paintings.

Wilson found four of the artists by scouring gallery websites and art blogs, but she didn’t have to do any research to find local artist Ron Porter. Wilson was determined to include Porter—who is represented locally by Cumberland Gallery—because she’d admired his work since studying with him while a student at Vanderbilt. In fact, he was her mentor for her senior show.

St. Louis-based Cavanaugh was also familiar as an artist on Tinney’s roster, though she had not yet exhibited in the gallery. Cavanaugh developed a new process of painting frescoes several years ago while living in New Mexico. Her watercolor-on-plaster panels include Moment of Momentum, a portrait of an auburn-haired young woman wearing red-and-white-striped socks on her hands and arms like evening gloves. She covers her face but peeks out from between her hands. Similar to clean photographic portraits of a subject standing before a pale gray background, the paintings are small at 16” x 16”. The largest, a horizontal, stretches to 36” across.

“Her work is on a smaller scale, which is interesting because when you think fresco you think of larger pieces,” Wilson says. “The [smaller] scale fits the quiet, reflective nature of Cavanaugh’s work.”

On the opposite end of the size spectrum are Eric Zener’s intriguing underwater paintings. Moving Through, the larger of these, captures the power of a diver moving through teal water, arms outstretched before her, a stream of bubbles around her. “I am so excited to see that piece in person because it’s really big—54” x 66”. The scale alone, much less how graphic it is, is going to be pretty amazing,” Wilson says. The plan is to hang this painting directly across from the gallery entrance.

Danny Heller’s architectural paintings are also well suited for Tinney Contemporary’s sleek interior. Heller grew up in Southern California and incorporates the region’s iconic architecture into his work. His close-up view of Case Study House #8, otherwise known as the home of husband-and-wife design legends Charles and Rae Eames, puts the viewer just a few steps from the structure. Large trees frame the distinctive modular house and cast mottled shadows on the truncated view of the lawn. The house itself is shown on an angle, highlighting the lines made by the black-framed rectangular windows alternating with brightly colored panels.

“A lot of people wonder why cars or houses are presented a lot with realism. It really shows how technically well [the artists] have been trained and that they’ve got such a mastery over their skill that they can have it look so exact,” Wilson says.

In Heller’s Twin Palms, the deep foreground of intersecting grass-filled circles leads viewers to Frank Sinatra’s former estate in the center of the picture. The Palm Springs house has a raised V roof over a row of clerestory windows through which Heller offers a tantalizing glimpse of a painting inside and clouds on the other side. Contrails in the blue sky and a view of distant mountains complete the composition. Heller revisits the house in Backyard at Dusk, which recalls Julius Shulman’s nocturnal photographs of similar mid-century masterpieces.

“Though I’m putting them under the broad label of realism, there definitely is a range,” Wilson says of the works in The New Real. Eric Zener’s stuff is almost hyper-realistic, whereas Ron Porter’s is more surrealistic. Brian Tull and Danny Heller do more nostalgic work that is period- or time-based. Ruane’s has that mystical dreamlike element to it.” By showing the depth of the genre, Wilson seeks to underscore the relevance of realism in the contemporary art world.

The New Real continues through August 18 at Tinney Contemporary and will include receptions on July 7 and August 4, as well as a Collectors Art Night on August 3.

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