By Peter Frank
Contemporary realism conceptualizes painting. It prompts us to consider how the camera has reshaped our view of our world by applying the visible conditions of the photograph to the physical conditions of the canvas. Much contemporary realism — including but not only Photo-realism – doesn’t really look at subject matter at all: it looks at how we see subject matter as a result of looking at such subject matter through various lenses. It is a sophisticated exercise in perception, at least in the hands, and eyes, of those who understand what’s going on between the seeing and the seen. It is a discussion between painter and viewer about what is painted and, even more, how it is viewed.
Carole Bayer Sager doesn’t paint food, she paints how we look at and see food. In each of her paintings Bayer Sager depicts a field of vision. The identifiable thing — the nut, the cake, the sandwich – disappears in this field of vision, much the way something does when you stare at it with unyielding intensity. The peanut shell recedes into a blanket of shards, the popcorn kernel absorbs back into the field of burgeoning white shapes, the trail of jelly no longer seems to be emerging from the bread but now functions as a vertical pinion pushing back the horizontals of the bread, as if in a Mondrian abstraction. This isn’t still life. It isn’t still, and it isn’t life. This is seeing –how we see and how our sight has been reorganized by a device (or family of devices) that have been available for as long as anyone alive remembers.
In her statement, Bayer Sager tells us that, in effect, she thinks of her work as abstract, that is, as a matter of forrnal decisions and moves that either fall together or don’t. She revealingly compares the process to her songwriting, letting us in on a little secret: a song doesn’t get you because you because the lyrics are what you want to hear or because the music is so engaging, but because the music and the lyrics drive each other in just the right way. Everything has to work together or nothing works at all. Similarly, everything has to work together in a Bayer Sager painting, not because she wants you to look at food and get all ravenous, nor because she wants you to look at some handsome abstract structure and be seduced by its forms and rhythms, but because that abstract structure has to make the food stand out and disappear into it at the same time. She gets you salivating but transcendìng your hunger. If the picture works, it can feed you, not just make you want to be fed.
Bayer Sager is, if anything, more invested in the sensuality of the paint than in the sensuality of the subject matter. The paint itself is rich, thick, tactile, the surfaces often glazed. If the goodies she depicts inspire nostalgia for gustatory indulgence, the rich feel of the paint awakens a deeper, more directly and intensely felt sensation, one activated not simply by association but by direct observation. After all, the snacks and baked goods have been magnified, cropped, telescoped, and framed – all photographic techniques which Bayer Sager exploits (and thus comments on, as a contemporary realist), but which result in the subject matter’s distortion, often to the point of unrecognizabilìty. The food no longer looks like food, it looks like images of food; it inspires oral desire the way a billboard of a burger does, through association rather than observation. What we see before us are pictures of food–emphasis on “pictures” — not food itself. The works don’t smell of cooking oil, they smell of linseed oil – and anyone who likes their art fresh will tell you that linseed oil is an even less resistable aroma.
In this regard, Bayer Sager tweaks the conditions of photo-realism as well. We don’t think of the photo-realist style as painterly. But in fact it is, and perhaps should be; While so many photo-realists are masters of the airbrush, certain of them (one thinks, for instance, of Richard Estes, and even Robert Bechtle) investigate the relationship of painting to photography by making sure their surfaces stay painterly, even while the pictures themselves are unmistakably photographic. In this way such painters underscore the conceptual clash between the sensual medium of painting and the anti-sensual medium of photography. A distinctive figure like Wayne Thiebaud also figures in this discussion: Thiebaud’s images don’t look like photographs at all, in part because of his ferociously juicy brush, but they rely at least indirectly on photography–and photographic manipulation — in the cold isolation of their subjects. Bayer Sager does not emulate Thiebauds painterly manner (much less his candy-toned palette); but she keeps Thiebaud in her sights by creating a tactile – a rather oddly, disturbingly tactile photo-inflected realism, one driven by the presence rather than the absence of a painterly surface.
Mention of Thiebaud, of course, reminds us that Bayer Sager is hardly the first contemporary realist to concentrate on food. But she does not mimic their strategies. She does not artificially break up the picture with painterly devices, but ends abstracting qualities in the images themselves. When she overloads the visual field, the subject matter goes in and out of focus by itself, and we find ourselves rubbing our eyes not in order to refocus, but in order to move in and out of the painting so as to the proper relative scale – which her cropping and tilting never quite allow.
Carole Bayer Sager’s paintings are not about our desire for the subjects she depicts. They are about our perceptions. They challenge not our ability to resist our appetites but our ability to understand how we see things. This involves our psychological motivations and our sensory responses, to be sure, but it also involves the shaping of those responses and, for that matter, those motivations – by the technology that shapes our universe. The camera helped determine our consumer culture by directing our desires and even our needs for certain stimuli. And the camera was able to do so because it had long ago won our confidence. We depend upon the camera to know our world. But how dependable is the camera? Perhaps the only thing that clever machine has revealed is that our eyesight is not dependable, either. But, then, we learn that, over and over again, from art in general. Art such as Bayer Sager’s còntinues to remind us that, as the Zen koan puts it, things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.