by Susan W. Pidgeon
Bruce Willis once said “Art imitates life, and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” Currently at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art downtown there is a show by Marc Trujillo called American Purgatory which attempts to imitate life.
The paintings of familiar places like Costco, airports, fast food restaurants, and the mall at first glance appear to be photographs. In fact, I thought they were photographs until further exploration. Once I found out they were paintings, I really became interested.
Photorealism or Hyperrealism started in the 1960s
This type of painting is known as Photorealism or Hyperrealism and started back in the 1960s. It is usually painted using photographs as a visual aid. The canvas is then divided into a grid system and the various elements added in extremely minute detail.
As you can imagine, it is quite the painstaking process and not for anyone of average skill. Other methods involve using a projector to trace the image then filling in areas with paint. Neither one of these is done on site but use photographs to aid in the meticulous details. For this reason, some people have issues with this kind of painting due to the lack of imagination. It is from the “just the facts, ma’am” school of thought. However, does bring to mind Edward Hopper’s painting of the diner called Nighthawks or the office scene with his secretary called Office at Night. Hopper lacks the realistic feel, but he is documenting his everyday life much like Trujillo.
A statement about modern culture
Unlike Hopper, Marc Trujillo is making a very strong statement about modern culture. The bleakness of the buildings alone forebode an unhappy ending. The modern materials of glass, concrete, steel and metal beams are impenetrable. They exude a coldness and lend no warmth to humans but rather issue a stern warning not to enter. Unheeded, these modern places are entered by consumers and stripped of the contents repeatedly.
Yet the neon light beckons people from afar and is quite brazen in its approach. In fact, modern businesses are not only often generic they are shamelessly severe in the lack of ornamentation. Look around briefly in any Walmart and Costco and it doesn’t take long to realize you are currently in a glorified warehouse.
Trujillo makes a statement about the lack of individuality in such places. In his painting of Costco, the chickens are even cookie cutter editions bagged and placed next to one another. It is as if he is raising the alarm that individuality has no place in a society meant for the mass consumption of goods. In fact, his paintings do not have the names of the stores they depict themselves, but rather “almost names” in that they are close enough to where you can figure out what the intended building is based on, but not definitive enough to call them a Jack in the Box or Wendy’s or Taco Bell.
Trujillo does that intentionally as well as names the paintings by the address rather than the type of business, as there is power in a name. Names allude to individuality and that has no place in modern life. It is as if we are all on an assembly line buying things and are not allowed to be human while doing so. In essence, we should be differentiated by titles such as Customer #345 which is very limited in distinctive elements. Trujillo also excludes items that allude to particular geographical areas such as palm trees. He does so to make his paintings very generic so that everywhere looks the same in his painted world of pseudo-reality.
A visit to Purgatory
Trujillo, also interestingly enough in the midst of this depressing recording of the grim facts of unadorned modernity, hints at a warmer more human side via the natural world above and around the buildings. He paints lovely skies that hint at hope and peace amidst the grim and raw daily grind of modern life. The title American Purgatory alone suggests we are somewhere held in the balance between individuality and becoming just a product on an assembly line. The sky hints that there is more to life than buying things yet the building lures us inside promising to meet our every desire.
Purgatory, interestingly enough, is somewhere between Earth and Hell. According to art critic Robert Storr in the program for the show, “the zones Trujillo paints dangle us between Heaven and Hell and should be all to familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have to spend many hours in them. But then, of course, many millions do each day of every month of every year. Malls and strips are places we hurry toward or away from yet where life is on hold so long as we are there. Trujillo knows this down to his fingertips. The people caged in the glass booths of the drive thru windows of fast-food restaurants are captives every bit as much as if they were in low-security lockups.”
Two talks you can attend
Marc Trujillo is presenting an eye opening view of modern society and the direction we are headed in. If you type in Photorealism into any search engine, lots of paintings of old school diners appear. They are of a bygone era. Tons of anachronisms await you. Photorealism is very much a means to document modern society, warts and all. I am not sure that this side however, is one we should be documenting.
Marc Trujillo’s show American Purgatory can be seen at the Halsey Institute until October 7th. There is a lecture by Robert Storr Thurs Sept 14th at 7pm called “What Happened to The American Scene? Realism after 1980” as well as an Artist Talk by Marc Trujillo on Sept 16th at 2pm. Both are free and open to the public.
Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)2025394 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.