Picture This: Photorealism 1966-1985 | Waddington Custot

As art movements go, I’d put Photorealism in my highly-populated mental category of “know it exists, don’t remember seeing any”. Not surprising I hadn’t, considering there have been only three UK exhibitions of Photorealist art in 50 years. Anyway, I’ve seen some now thanks to the third of these, which is on at Waddington Custot this summer.

The Photorealist movement was Pop’s less-popular twin. It was also, in its first generation at least, profoundly American. It was also a rejection of then-dominant Abstract Expressionism, and also got going in the 1960s. Its artists also shared an obsession with mass media and consumer goods. But Photorealism’s leading lights, like Robert Cottingham and Ralph Goings, are nothing like as famous as Pop stars like Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein.

Ralph Goings ‘Still Life (Colour Pick)’ (1982)

As the name suggests, Photorealist artists based their work on photographs and aimed for as exact a reproduction as possible in their final paintings. They’re copyists by design, collectively interested in inconsequential and everyday objects of American life: cars, shops and signs. The works are blank, actively avoiding meaning, somehow elusive despite the purity of their representation.

Looking at the works on show at Waddington Custot, all from an unnamed private collection, my critical faculties got a bit scrambled: I registered the painters’ very sophisticated technique - I don’t think I saw a single visible brushstroke. But the absence of the artist’s hand in these scenes, faithfully and blankly reproduced as they are, left me floundering for any coherent interpretation of what I saw. This emptiness and ambiguity was surely part of the point for these painters, surrounded as they were by mass then-new media, with its endless machine-made reprints, photocopies and all the rest.

My favourite work from across the exhibitions - Waddington Custot showed the collection in two parts, I suppose because they didn’t have the wall space to show everything they wanted in one go - is pictured above. Ralph Goings’ Still Life (Colour Pick), from 1982. It’s a painting of a collection of inconsequential, well-used objects on top of a table in a diner.

This tissue dispenser, these shakers, this ketchup bottle are twice-removed from life, firstly by being photographed, then by this photograph being painstakingly reproduced in paint. It makes for the stillest still life I’ve ever seen - a scene of almost perfect inertia.

Almost? Well, the reason it stands out is because, picked out below the barcode is something that definitely wasn’t in the original photograph - the artist’s signature: R GOINGS. At last, just this once, these elusive artists gave this confused viewer something to reach out and grab on to. The hand is revealed!

Picture This: Photorealism 1966-1985 (Part 2) is on at Waddington Custot (London). 24 May - 24 June 2023. Part 1 was on from 21 April - 20 May.