“Who’s going to pay attention to a juicer or a ketchup bottle unless you make it into art?”
– Tobin Sprout
Richard Estes, the American pioneer of the genre of Photorealism in fine art painting, captured the intense beauty of the everyday in a way no one had before him. Yet what he chose to paint and how he decided to paint it were as much a factor in his work as his technique.
Unlike Norman Rockwell who painted realistic scenes, usually featuring groups of people, for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916-1963, Estes took Realism on a new tangent. Pop Art’s exaltation of everyday objects, an aesthetic being pioneered by Andy Warhol around the same time, partially informed the new style of realism. But instead of objects, Estes’ paintings made the dramatic physical transformation of the post-war environment the protagonist of the story.
To emphasize the importance he saw in these otherwise mundane scenes, Estes, like many of his contemporaries (such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline working in Abstract Expressionism), expanded the physical presence of his work to a monumental scale.
One of the most cited works in Estes’ early career is “Telephone Booth,” 1967. An elaborate study of repetition, industrial design, and urban space/crowding, this painting is deep meditation on how human life fits into the constructed urban world of the mid-20th Century – and how that veneer shrouds human activity.
The brushwork and design in this detail of “Telephone Booth” is loaded with independent themes and areas of interest. The technique has so many operational colors, styles and ideas – including an abundance of chrome – it’s hard to imagine how the painter accomplishes the overall effect taken in at a distance.
Now consider this as a challenge for an artist: Work in the same medium and style as one of the most celebrated mid-century American painters – and still claim your own voice; your own space; and even bring your own signature techniques to a genre. One American painter still working today manages to pull this off.
In the realm of fine art painting, Tobin Sprout’s technique of rendering the beauty of chrome, distortion, and reflection borrows from Estes, but he takes it in a direction that is entirely his own, and much more personal. Sprout’s paintings began to exist inside the chrome, almost like a refuge. When Sprout hit his stride in the 1990’s, he was making monumental works that predominantly incorporated chrome elements, from pay phones, to kettles, to juicers.
This is a stunning painting of a classic car dashboard with grids of chrome detail set off by the darkness of the dash. Perspective rendering of the odometer numbers and the chrome highlights standing out against a deeply rich background make this an over-the-top work of realistic painting. Between detail, perspective, reflection, complexity of composition and light – a lot of it, this is a painting that challenges the viewer to figure out how it was executed.
Sprout’s obsession with, and total mastery of, the visual effect of chrome (what I call ‘Superchrome’) became a recurring theme in his paintings of the 1990’s, concurrent with the success of his band, Guided By Voices. Among these, “Tea Kettle”, “Percolator,” and “Ohio Bell” all feature huge areas of chrome reflection. And with the exception of “Ohio Bell,” which is presumably outdoors, every one of these chrome studies are also studies of the interior spaces captured by and visualized through the distortion of the reflection.
Sprout’s last available oversize painting from the Superchrome era literally explores the world from inside the reflection of a blender. “Osterizer” takes the personal space of the reflection to a new level with a portrait of the artist and his soon to be wife, Laura. The painting is about how the objects we keep capture not just our style, but also part of the essential experience of our lives as Americans.
While Estes offers insights across his career from the perspective of an almost universally detached observer, Sprout takes the opportunity in Photorealism to examine how these objects interpret his own life, and by extension, interpret us as a people.
Sprout says about the everyday objects he chose to paint that, “They weren’t just functional, they were something worthy of respect.” He loves the design and he loves that something seemingly so cold and mechanical has been so lovingly crafted. And to make his trust in this love all the more explicit, he paints himself and the love of his life right into the world of the machine. “Osterizer” is an homage to how the constructed world around us interprets and changes us.
With a retro-Art Deco mug, Land-O-Lakes mug, and miniature retro television all hanging out on a formica table circa 1965, the still-life Sprout has chosen is a 20th Century time travel mash-up – a true end of the century retrospective. The painting is an homage to homages of by-gone American styles. Even the blender, likely available new in the 1990s as it probably is today, is stylistically a 1950’s and 1960’s appliance design. But somehow it is quite clearly from its own time period, perhaps in the offhand way the retro-designs in the painting have become novelty toys.
Even the most organic element of the painting, the ripe banana in the bottom right is stamped with the Chiquita sticker, which is only visible in the reflected world.
The unexpected gift of a well-made blender is that millions of Americans have lived a shared experience made possible not just by the companies who sold it, but by the collective effort of every designer and industrial manufacturer who clocked a lifetime of work to make this, and other, uniquely American experiences possible. This careful look by Sprout tells us a lot about our culture.
As the opening quote suggests: This is something we would never see if he never chose to make it art.
It is an American contradiction that a large part of what brings us together as a people is mass produced. These are the hallmarks of what it has meant to be from the United States for over a hundred years. Sprout shows us that there is something to take heart in where others see infertile ground among the strange, distorting, mass produced world of American things. The original impetus to make the Osterizer was commercial success, but the shared cultural experience that results is something Sprout wants us to recognize and celebrate together.
November 18, 2017
Originally posted December 5, 2017
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