by Roderick Conway Morris

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A young artist in Umbria re-draws the contours of Photorealism

By Roderick Conway Morris
TODI, Italy 14 June 2003
Raphaella Spence
The Poet by Raphaella Spence, 2004



Of all recent art movements, few were execrated by the modernists so virulently as Photorealism. The painters and sculptors of this school, which emerged in the United States in the mid-1960s, produced more or less exact copies of photographs (or in the case of sculptures, often direct body casts), recording seemingly banal city scenes, suburban streets, storefronts, diners, consumer goods, automobiles and motorcycles, with phenomenal adeptness, but with a disconcerting level of emotional detachment.

The themes were classically American, but the illusionistic, trompe l'oeil techniques stretched back through the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelites and Dutch painting of the 17th century to the Italian and Flemish Renaissance. Many of the pioneers had received traditional art school training, and their insistence on continuing to apply these age-old skills, albeit to thoroughly contemporary subjects, in part represented a reaction to the denigration of figurative art, and to the claims of conceptual artists that the promulgation of hip notions was more important than producing a well-made object of lasting value.

In Europe, Photorealism was doubly damned for being not just backward-looking but also capitalist, consumerist and, perhaps most heinous of all, American. So vituperative were the denunciations of the critical establishment in Italy that not a single public or private collection ever bought one of these works, even as a curiosity of art history.

That Photorealist works are virtually unknown in Italy may go some way to explaining why an exhibition, 'Hyperealists' (as they are usually known here), at the Bramante Cloister in Rome is proving a surprise runaway success with the general public.

The more than 100 pieces by 33 artists showcase all the leading American names and notable younger players, such as Betrand Meniel of France, and the Britons Clive Head and Raphaella Spence. (The exhibition continues until July 6.)

At 24, Spence, who now exhibits regularly in New York and London, is easily the youngest participant, and the only one working in Italy. Chrysler, the show's principal sponsor, chose her to undertake a special commission for the occasion. The upshot, cryptically entitled 'The Secret' - unveiled at the Bramante Cloister in May - is of a driverless Chrysler PT Cruiser, crouched like some sleek, cornered beast in a Roman arena: a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ancient-and-modern marriage of the shiny, lovingly rendered motorcars of the American Photorealists and the hilltop Umbrian town of Todi's historic town square.

Spence lives and has her studio at her family's home about 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Todi, a centuries-old former mill at the end of a long dirt road in a lush, secluded valley. This unspoiled landscape, along with other rustic and mountain scenes around Italy, is the main concern of her present work - a far cry from the urban environments of her American predecessors and the Pop Art that was one of their main inspirations.

Asked at her studio what had attracted a young artist starting out on her career to a style of painting so strongly associated with the America of three decades and more ago, Spence said: 'I've been painting ever since I can remember, and I also became interested in photography when I was very young. Perhaps because I was constantly taking photographs, my work gradually took on more and more photographic qualities. It was only later that I saw my first Photorealist paintings and they really appealed to me.'

Although Photorealist pictures have in common that from a distance they look like photographs, the techniques used to this end are extremely diverse, as is clear from examining at close hand the radically different approaches in evidence at the Rome show. How the reference material is gathered can also vary enormously.

'For me, there are two completely distinct stages,' Spence said. 'The first is to collect the original image and to manipulate this in various ways; the second to transfer the result into paint. Once I have the first image, I make a digital version and often play with it for a long time. I might elaborate it by changing the color, brightness, contrast, whatever, until I am satisfied, and only then is it ready to paint. After I've done that, I'm totally faithful to the photograph I've created and reproduce it as exactly as I can, using entirely traditional oil painting techniques. This is very slow work, which is why each picture takes about a month to complete.'

'Obviously, there is much more technology available to painters than there was in the late 1960s and '70s,' Spence said. 'And I think this does have an effect on the end result. It's a great help to be working within a movement that has been going for some time now, but I hope that by developing my own methods I'm in some way pushing things forward, expanding the possibilities.'

Looking at Spence's compositions, one is left in no doubt that she has an acute photographer's eye, while the finesse of her brushwork in oils is remarkable. The final canvases have a vibrant, dream-like luminosity. These are labors of love, and emotional detachment is the last thing they suggest.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023