Lifelike: Nothing is as it seems at the Walker

It’s hard to know what’s what these days.

From Photoshopped images of models to quotes taken out of context, finding something real and true to hold onto can be a full-time pursuit.

At least the Walker Art Center is being honest about its latest exhibition, Lifelike, which presents the viewer with a series of glorious fakes.

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Crouching Boy in Mirror, 1999/2002 by Ron Mueck

mixed media

An old cardboard box turns out to be canvass on wood, treated and manipulated until it finally looks exactly like an old cardboard box. An oversized rubber eraser that appears smudged from use is actually made from balsa wood and acrylic paint.

Everywhere you turn, ordinary objects and mundane pictures reveal themselves to be something wholly different from what they appear to be.

The reality-craving pragmatist in me says “that’s cool… but what’s the point?”

Curator Siri Engberg says for many artists, it’s about testing the limits of their ability with the tools of their trade. If they manage to fool the eye of a viewer, they’ve achieved a level of skill and artistic accomplishment.

But beyond that, Engberg says, the act of making this kind of art in today’s modern age is tantamount to a form of protest:

We have so many images coming at us with such speed, the fact that someone would take the time to slow down and make something mundane with such precision, is really a radical undertaking. There is a real conscious decision on the part of the artists – to move slowly, to go back to process in order to persuade the viewer.

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“Nothing good happens after midnight/everything good happens after midnight” by Ruben Nusz

acrylic, oil, tea, walnut ink on wax and resin (with incense and cremation ashes)

Courtesy Weinstein Gallery, Minneapolis

Two of the 55 artists in this show are Minnesotans – David Lefkowitz and Ruben Nusz. Nusz created an ashtray, complete with used cigarettes. For him, the process of creating the work became almost a spiritual act, connecting him to a chain-smoking grandfather he never met.

Why create something that is an exact replica of something it isn’t? For me the materials supply the answer: acrylic, oil, tea, walnut ink and resin with incense and cremation ashes. The materials indicate a process and a ritual. The exercise of copying something, mimesis, has been the crux of much artistic practice since earlier than the paintings of the Chauvet cave. It’s a way of understanding our reality. Yet, this type of work can also undermine our reality which directs us to the notion that our reality itself is malleable, even fictitious. If an artist can fool the eye with a fake ashtray who knows what advertisers can do, or government propagandists.

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David Lefkowitz

Selections from Fixtures

oil on wood panels

As for David Lefkowitz, he’s sprinkled the exhibition with small paintings that look deceptively like electrical outlets and other utilitarian panels. But they aren’t. Lefkowitz says he likes how they “feign utility.”

Ideally, viewers will first pass right by, oblivious to the fixtures’ status as paintings, then maybe notice one, then start looking around more carefully for more, then confusing actual wall sockets or security monitors for paintings, until they become attentive to their surroundings in a way they hadn’t been when they walked into the space. I could post a “START SEEING INFRASTRUCTURE” bumpersticker on the wall, but I decided to take a stealthier, more nuanced approach.

For Lefkowitz, like Nusz, realism is all about paradox – both in art, and in our lives.

One of the things I like best about Lifelike is its full of artworks that do that double duty, work that says “Please pay attention to the man behind the curtain.” They pose questions about the nature of what we believe, about how an image or object is invested with the power of legitimacy, trust, authenticity- qualities we claim to desire in all aspects of life- in life partners, political leaders, foodstuffs- yet are frequently satisfied with ersatz versions of.

Lifelike opens tomorrow and will be up through May 27. Perhaps after seeing the show, people will start looking at the “real world” with a more skeptical eye.

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