Visual art has long been concerned with realism — the accurate depiction of the "real" world around us — but now, thanks to digital photography, the Internet and cellphone cameras, we live in a world filled with images of everything that happens to almost everyone all of the time, as pictures of pets, birthday parties and vacations flash from digital devices to social media sites at lightning speed. Everything is special for at least a moment, but this renewed popular focus on the ordinary actually reflects the concerns and obsessions of the pop art movement of a half-century ago. The New Orleans Museum of Art's big new Lifelike exhibition revisits pop art's fascination with the ordinary, updated with new works that reflect the digital zeitgeist of the 21st century.
Made up of more than 90 works from the 1960s to the present inspired by everyday objects and situations, Lifelike spotlights the work of 50 international artists including art stars like Chinese dissident sculptor Ai Weiwei and the Italian master-prankster Maurizio Cattelan. Multifaceted German maestros Gerhard Richter and Thomas Demand appear along side iconic American pop artists like Andy Warhol, Edward Kienholz and Chuck Close, among others. But where 20th-century masters like Warhol and Kienholz were content to present commonplace items as objects of contemplation, the artists of the 21st century have not been hesitant to employ technology and special effects to create realistic objects that fool the senses.
For instance, Leandro Erlich's Subway, 2010, installation features a life-size steel door like the kind seen on subways only here the window frames a continuous loop video of seated somnolent subway riders like members of a mechanical ashram with meditating acolytes in motion. Similarly, an untitled Cattelan sculpture realistically recreates a pair of stainless steel elevators that are actually installed seamlessly into the pristine walls of the museum. They look no different from other elevators except for their size — barely more than a foot tall. At the other end of the scale, Robert Therrien's untitled folding table and chair sculptures are exact replicas of the sorts of folding seats and tables found in conference or meeting rooms, but here the chair seats come up to your chest and the table is tall enough for an adult to walk under with room to spare.
While those surreal spatial distortions are fun, some of the more subtle pieces are no less stunning. For instance, Ugo Rondinone's ultra-convincing still.life. (cardboard leaning on the wall) sculpture looks like a discarded bit of packing crate —only it's really a cast-bronze panel meticulously painted to look like a scrap of corrugated cardboard. Ditto Alex Hay's Paper Bag, which looks just like an ordinary brown paper sack, only this one is five feet tall. Fashioned from fiberglass and epoxy, it might be something left behind for the cleanup crew in that room with the giant folding table and chairs.
Some of the most haunting pieces in the show include Robert Bechtle's 73 Mailbu painting of a two-tone Chevy in a 1970s suburban carport. It reads like a scene from childhood, and if anyone wonders what it's like in that suburban house, Keith Edmier's Bremen Towne is a full-size environmental installation of a 1960s suburban kitchen replete with period furnishings and paisley wallpaper. Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., this is one of those rare art exhibitions that combines pervasive high quality and intellectual heft with boatloads of popular appeal.