The Richmond Esoteric Art League puts a thought-provoking spin on realism at Artspace. 

Reality Bites

Have you heard this one: When is a door not a door? (Answer: When it is ajar.)

Apply that riddle to the notion of realism and you will have your doorway into the Richmond Esoteric Art League. The group is made up of seven artists (five of them from Richmond) with a Website (www.realart.org) and a philosophical statement to present figurative art "without straying from realism... but which holds true to the idea of perception."

It is an interesting show for several reasons. The first simply being the circumference of the curatorial circle that the group has collectively drawn up. All of the images in the show are experiential. They record people the artists know, personal memories and collected objects (toys particularly).

People who need to be able to recognize their subject matter will be in good shape. But what REAL will not do for that audience is to make it comfortable beyond that. That's another interesting feature of this group exhibition — it's really uncomfortable. The membership is looking for trouble under the sofa cushions. Each artist has his own technique for embarrassing the housekeeping of the living room where the realistic painting was always meant to hang.

Jamie Pocklington's confrontational portraits and scenarios of disingenuous-looking children caught in occult acts play off of Jack Lawrence's more cryptic and discretionary adult observances. Lawrence's narrowed framing betrays the privacy of his subjects like views through a keyhole. The voyeur is always something of a Candide encountering Lawrence's world and its darkly libidinous quality.

Ed Pashke makes a small cameo appearance in the show with his little, provocative "Mary Me," a carnival-style mask with its supplication engraved in its glowing forehead. Jorge Benitez gives the show his succinct and forceful paintings of handsome subjects accessorized with their various handicaps and/or attributes. Jeff Hathaway paints flat, rather unarticulated portraits that seem to express his characters as fatuous, nerdy and awkward. These he occasionally puts in ready-made decorator frames to enhance the vanity effect. Tim Wilson's paintings, on the other hand, are incredibly wrought into the most deeply startling visual experience. They are irresolute — as though seen through a lens coated in Vaseline — portraits of toy figures. The pseudo-photographic effect is confusing and riveting, nightmarish and brilliant.

In the small center gallery, things quiet down and become more serious and melancholy. Thomas Van Auken's restrained oil and graphite studies of vacated clothing and human skeletons are exquisite. He employs a technique of etching the glass in the latter works that mystifies them, layering them like tissue paper that romantically conceals its contents to no avail. The fragility of these images is conveyed in the hushed sense of absence. Vanitas pieces in essence, they insinuate uneasiness and mortality, but somehow manage to soothe simultaneously.

It is Jason Andrews' small, delicate cartoons that although haunting and acute, originally seemed to me the least appropriate to the theme and the least likely to qualify as realism. However, that was only until I accidentally stepped away from Western culture while his work was still lingering in my mind. That evening, looking at some slides of Japanese ink drawings of men at a tea ceremony, I recognized the stylistic similarity of Eastern brush painting to Andrews' work. Sketchy, highly expressive and gestural caricatures of figures isolated in empty white environs, Andrews' vulnerable paintings sometimes include enigmatic, ritualistic symbols.

It was thus that I realized that giving the ter of esoteric back to the ter of terra (land) may assist the viewer in perceiving the reach of the show, as it did for me. Nice.


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