Visiting the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Contemporary Realism Biennial is a little like opening an album of vacation photos and seeing things you didn’t expect to find.
On one wall of the museum there is a vibrant painting of a dahlia and a sumptuous one of river stones, and then there is Frank Trankina’s Dream Cabinet.
The cabinet in Dream Cabinet contains a few broken toys and a few that might seem less ominous if they were broken.
The museum’s curator of American art, Sarah Aubrey, says Trankina could have made his painting a more comfortable viewing experience by presenting the toys in a cutesy little arrangement. But instead Dream Cabinet is like the vacation photo that argues with your memories, but may get closer to the truth.
Aubrey says such paintings and arrangements of paintings challenge some people’s notions about what realism is and what it’s for.
There is this misconception that it’s all homogenous, she says. Pretty pictures of flowers. But there is not only a diverse range of media in this show, there’s a diverse range of subject matter.
Aubrey says some of the work is challenging.
It makes you think outside the box, she says.
The 2012 Contemporary Realism Biennial opens Saturday.
What makes realism so popular, Aubrey says, is that most viewers quickly find something relatable in it.
Aubrey says it is the artists’ intention to (pull) something out of them, evoke a memory.
She jokingly describes realism as the gateway drug of art appreciation. But realism can’t be summed up as an attempt to make a painting look like a photograph, even though some of the paintings do indeed look like photographs.
Several of the works in the Biennial, such as Sharon Moody’s paintings of rolled-up comic books, are so photo-real that it is hard to discern any brush strokes.
And others, like Denise Stewart-Sanabria’s painting of key limes, stop being identifiable as limes if you get too close, just as Claude Monet’s lilies stop being lilies under the same circumstances.
There is an elegant painting of wine and cheese in the show and a painting of a pomegranate and a doughnut that is about as reassuring as surgical images.
Bruno Surdo’s Right to Bear Arms, which depicts a scene of violence that is equal parts visceral and allegorical, is no more bucolic than Hieronymus Bosch’s hell.
Even some of the work that should make us feel cozy has the power to unsettle us for reasons we can’t quite define.
For example, James Viewegh’s painting of a man hugging his son in a toy-filled room, which is somehow as otherworldly in almost unspecifiable ways as a scene from a science fiction film.
The museum doesn’t set out to offend people, Aubrey says, but they need to be prepared for the possibility that they will be offended by something.
Aubrey says she arranges works on the wall to create conversations.
Case in point is a grouping of three unique approaches to painting faces: Andrew Ek’s sardonic Self Portrait Scratching Face; Joel Ottman’s intense Lipstick and Libido; and Carl Gombert’s raw yet tender, Mom During Chemotherapy.
They are dissimilar and yet their coming together on the same wall encourages a viewer to reflect on their similarities, to consider how one piece affects the others.
Aubrey suggests that each work should generate a trilateral conversation.
(It’s) what the artists brings to the conversation, she says, what the viewers bring to the conversation and what the artwork around it brings to the conversation.