Realism with a Hint of Mystery

Article excerpt

REALISM in art has been around for hundreds of years. Moving in and out of fashion over the course of the 20th century, it has never completely disappeared. It is sometimes said to celebrate the material world. But there are all kinds of realist movements today - Photo-Realism, trompe l'oeil, hard-edge, Neo-Realism, Hyper-Realism, among others. There are some realist artists, however, who are working with something more than merely the appearances of objects, people, and places. Light, color, and metaphorical relationships of objects in a painting may point to meaning that moves beyond a simple reflection of the world as we (or the artist) see it. Universal significance may arise out of the highly personal choice of objects in such work.

So-called new realism is identified with a cool, detached, even antiseptic view of reality. And while Colorado artist Scott Fraser is clearly linked to new realism in his clean lines, precision technique, and strong compositions, his work is more open to interpretation, brimming with mystery and layers of meaning, all exquisitely realized in oil paint.

Picture this: A funny old chair covered in red brocade sits in quiet dignity against the studio wall. Above it is a painting of three fishermen in a tempest-tossed boat. Beside it is a broom. In front of it is a length of electric cord and a battered running shoe. The armchair itself holds a stuffed fish. It takes a moment to see the wit of this scene in Mr. Fraser's "Three Fishermen" - the placement of the fish corresponds humorously to the efforts of the three fishermen in the painting-within-the-painting, and the oddity of the shoe and the cord registers slowly. The colors are rich and warm, the light dramatic and beautiful, and the handling of paint classically elegant.

The fact that the armchair belonged to Fraser's grandparents, as did the stuffed fish, is not apparent to most viewers. Yet that fact introduces a note of sentiment - genuine feeling as opposed to sentimentality, a deliberate attempt to exploit the viewer's emotions. Fraser says he wanted to preserve the chair, which is beginning to deteriorate, to give it further life. He loved his grandparents and has many happy childhood memories associated with the chair. Yet, he eschews sentimentality, and the piece is almost solemn in its formal dignity. The precision of the chair is realism, the painterly approach to light as it glances off the wall and the floor, may indicate that something unusual is going on. Fraser's subtle twist of humor and the casual incongruity of the objects, though, assure the viewer that something unusual is going on. We know there is more here to discover, more to explore.

THINKING about the metaphors of Fraser's work is one of the great pluses - the fun - of viewing it. He likes to paint still lifes - to paint from life, as he puts it. And the objects he chooses (rocks, feathers, fruit, eggs, tools) bring into the interior of his studio the outdoors, as well as his own childhood memories and the favored belongings of people he loves. He won't be pinned down too closely about the meaning of these objects, because he wants to leave room for the viewer's own interpretation.

Some symbolism is clear enough to offer the viewer an almost instant take on the mystery of the painting, but there is always something more - something private that we can guess at only as we view the work. "Metronome," for example, features several eggs, one teetering on the tip of the metronome itself. Another broken shell lies nearby. The timing device has been stopped, a string attached and pinned to the table. It doesn't take much imagination to guess that the piece is about the fragility of human life, the force of time, and the beauty of the moment. What isn't so clear is that the painter's wife had been through a difficult illness, and Fraser stopped time for her. The eggs, he says, represent the life cycle and resurrection. …