Ever since, as a child, I saw Duane Hanson’s lifelike sculpture Janitor at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I’ve loved hyper-realistic art. Then last month, when I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, I was surprised to see another Hanson work, Man on a Bench. (I really was surprised, since it looked for all the world like a museum visitor taking a break from his tour.) And in a room close by, there was an oversized bust by Evan Penny, Old Self, Variation #2. Unlike with Hanson’s pieces, no one will mistake Old Self for an actual person—it’s only a head with shoulders, and it’s way too big. But still, it just looks so real.
Martin Schoeller is another artist in the same vein, except he doesn’t exactly create hyper realism, he captures it—with a camera. Born in Germany, but now based out of New York, Schoeller is best known for his “hyper-detailed” large-scale portraits of celebrities, which have appeared in magazines such as GQ, The New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly.
But his photographic subjects also include common people, like you and me. In fact, if you’d like to see what you’d look like in a Schoeller portrait, next time you’re in Bed Bath & Beyond, do like I did and take a look at yourself in the 10x-magnification of the Zadro Dimmable Florescent Dual-Sided Mirror. (That’s hyper realism.)
Schoeller recently took a cover photo for Esquire Russia of Vasiliy Ilyn, a retired farmer from Russia, who’s featured in this month’s magazine. Ilyn is one of Schoeller’s non-celebrity subjects, as the September Esquire is devoted to the rules that govern the lives of ordinary Russians.
For three days, Ilyn was something more than ordinary, as he was flown to New York for the photo shoot. His encounter with the city is chronicled in the 20-minute film Vasily, from Stereotactic. (Thanks to Carla Williams for telling me about the video.)
The film shows Ilyn’s first trip outside the Kursk region of Russia, his first time to see the ocean, and, of course, his first visit to America. As he looks around New York, he’s a fish out of water, but he’s an ordinary fish. And I’m not sure that his reactions are much different from those many retired farmers in the flyover portions of the US would have.
Ilyn narrates the documentary, and he has a lot to say about Russia, the US, and life in general. He thinks of himself as a joker, but much of what he says shows a solemn acceptance of the way things are. He’s pretty straightforward and plain spoken. At one point, while talking about his disdain for past Russian leaders, Ilyn drops an F-bomb. Actually, it’s more of an F-hand grenade since we read it in the subtitles.
When he gets back to his home, he tells a woman about the 80,000 Russians who live in New York. “I wish a flood would come and they would die,” she says. “Let the locals survive, but these traitors should die.”
Ilyn replies, “They were just looking for a better life. . . . Let them go.”
Shoeller’s type of hyper-realism doesn’t come from a lack of preparation and artistic manipulation. The lighting and focus has to be just right, and there’s a lot of time spent on Ilyn’s makeup. But the result is striking for its unglamorized detail.
That’s the way the documentary looks to me, too. I can tell a lot of work went into the making of Vasily, but it’s that work—the shot selection, the editing, the scoring of the music—that makes it feel more real . . . much more real than what usually passes for “reality” on TV today.
(“Russian Farmer Lands in Esquire and NYC,” Voices of NY, October 15, 2013)