Review: Photorealism At The New Orleans Museum Of Art

The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection of photorealist canvases reveals subtle painterly magic

By D. Eric Bookhardt | Gambit Weekly

This review originally appeared here

It’s no secret Sydney and Walda Besthoff are big-time art lovers, but the size of their photorealist painting collection, which takes up the back half of NOMA’s first-floor galleries, may come as a surprise. It is clearly one of America’s best, and if anyone wants to see what masterful, bravura painting looks like, this is the place. While not fully understood, photorealism is important because of what it reveals about how people have come to see the world. Painting as we know it was defined during the Renaissance by the depth perspective revealed through early optical devices. Sometimes the lens was just a pin hole in a dark enclosure, but the perspective it revealed has shaped our worldview ever since. Without even trying, people learned to see optical perspective over the centuries by looking at images and illustrations. The invention of photography in the 19th century mechanized that process. Photographs came across as truth, but when photorealism appeared in the 1960s, the human hand re-emerged as an arbiter of reality.

Photorealism records reflections and other details the way a camera sees them, which ironically enables the painter’s hand to create hyper-real images—like Charles Bell’s dazzling painting Cat’s Eye and the Best of ‘Em, a swirl of laser-sharp reflections, and Peter Maier’s impossibly crisp and sleek views of antique cars—that seem more vivid than photographs. But photorealism at its best reveals the subtler magic that underlies our ordinary, everyday world; if we are receptive to it. In Richard Estes’ 1991 New York street scene, Citarella Fish Company (pictured), or Davis Cone’s 1984 view of the Happy Hour theater on Magazine Street, the canvas seems to breathe with the sheer presence of those times and places. Such works suggest a special insight that, as the late novelist David Foster Wallace put it, “has everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is real and essential, yet so hidden in plain sight all around us.”