Blog / 2014 / The Allure of Hyperrealism

March 20, 2014

For some people, there’s no better painting than a hyperrealistic one. When looking at the piece, the more confused you are as to whether or not it’s a photo, the more the piece is considered a success.

I know that this opinion exists and that it is held by many. And, while I really don’t understand it on an emotional level, I think I have a handle on the logic behind the admiration. As far as I can tell, the attraction for both artists and viewers lies in these three aspects of hyperrealism:

  1. the unmistakable skill needed to create the piece.
  2. the ability to say objectively whether or not the painting is correct.
  3. the meditative quality of the work.

In a world where anything can be art as long as an artist says so, it makes sense that discipline would be celebrated. It’s a way of responding to what can seem like artists pulling one over on all of us. Since a hyperrealistic painting is definitely not something just anyone can create, it can seem more like real art for some people.

Along those same lines, I think it can be reassuring for answers about art to be obvious. With any work, when viewers reveal how they feel about the piece, it says at least as much about them as it does about the work, and that can be intimidating to people. With hyperrealism, the opinion can seem more like simple fact. There’s a satisfaction to being able to answer the question “is this art right or wrong?” without worrying about all the nuances of meaning.

Still, it’s the final aspect of the hyperrealistic allure that is most intriguing to me, psychologically speaking. As an artist, I understand that need to be present and mindful, to immerse oneself completely in the work, so I guess I understand the meditative character of creating a hyperrealistic painting. As a viewer though, “meditative” almost always translates “boring” for me.

Eloy Morales Painting in my Head
Eloy Morales’ Painting in My Head 2012

My favorite moments in hyperrealistic paintings are the ones where the photographic quality fails. In this piece by Eloy Morales, I’m only interested in the way the ends of the hair blurs. The artist might very well be copying that blur exactly from a photo with a shallow depth of focus, but I prefer to see it as an imperfection—and a very beautiful thing! In fact, it’s the only element of this painting that wakes me up.

Alyssa Monk Window II
Alyssa Monk’s Window II 2011

For the most part, when I look at hyperrealism, I can’t connect to the “wow, what skill!” reaction. The only time I’ve been able to is with Alyssa Monk’s work. I really appreciate her mastery of texture, both the texture she manages to portray and the texture her paintings appear to have (as far as I can tell in reproduction).

Still, even Monk’s work ultimately leaves me baffled. Try as I might to keep it out of my head and to understand other perspectives, the refrain remains the same: why not just take a photo? When all is said and done, hyperrealism feels like a craft to me, not an art. It feels like painting trying to be another medium, and I want so much more for painting. I want painting to be itself.

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