Friday, June 27, 2008

D. J. Hall

Artist Debra Jane (“D.J.”) Hall has a major 35 year retrospective show at the Palm Springs Art Museum. It runs through September 14, 2008 and is well worth a visit.

There are 50 large paintings and numerous pencil drawings and photographs, plus studies and notes used to advise the art director in the film “Spanglish,” which used her look and style.

I’d never heard of this artist and I was in Palm Springs for other reasons, but I’m glad I stopped into the museum. The work grows on you. At first glance I was disappointed, since photorealism doesn’t interest me much. I always think, “Yeah, it’s technically amazing; looks just like a photograph. But so what? Why not take a photo?”

Hall’s paintings mostly show rich, leisured women lounging at well-appointed pools and patios. The sunlight is ultra bright, the colors are primary and crisp, and the subjects (nearly all Caucasian women), haven’t a care in the world except to have a drink and soak up the rays. It’s a pleasant, dreamy atmosphere that just says “California.”

The large size of the canvases let you see how Hall makes the figures so realistic-looking. Almost every contour is outlined with a very thin line of bright or dark color. For example, if you get up real close and the museum guard does not blow the whistle on you, you can see a fine hair of brilliant cadmium yellow just touching the edge of the skin tones all around the women in the sun. From 18 inches you can’t see it, but it makes the figures pop out in the sunlight. Almost every object, no matter how small, is outlined in a similar way.

Still: “So what?” Hall often stages and photographs her scenes then paints from the photograph. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it begs the question, why not be a photographer then? Hall’s answer is given in an artist’s statement of 2001:

"Ironically, my images cannot exist in physical reality, as they are highly contrived composites of various real and imagined sources. I approach each new painting as though I am producing a film: selecting models, wardrobe changes, locations, props, time sequences, etc. For the photo sessions I devise scenarios for my models so they will project what I envision. With the resulting photos I add, delete, and re-configure information to achieve a strong visual structure which conveys my current interests."

So what is her message, her vision? She emphasizes the importance of women’s physical appearance, and most of her models are attractive, while some are older, but “well-maintained,” implying former beauty. That juxtaposition suggests fear, even denial of aging and death, just under the surface of these happy scenes.

Once you realize these pictures are not really about carefree youth and beauty, but their opposites, the paintings begin to look sinister. The shiny, reflecting sunglasses are more than eye protection: they are hiding the reality, from the viewer, and from the models themselves. The omnipresent alcohol, is it a desperate attempt to escape from time? What kind of person has time to sit and drink in the garden with a friend at mid-day? Someone with no plans, no appointments, no prospects, no life beyond appearances. Everyone smiles, but time hangs so thickly in the air it’s a wonder these people can breathe.

Older women have lumpy thighs and wrinkly faces, but big smiles, perfect teeth and expensive clothes to pretend they are still beautiful. They are with younger women -- not girls, but women of experience who have the economic resources to paint themselves with the timeless, confident, carefree palette of youth but who must know it has already passed. Their smiles start to look not light-hearted, but like clench-jawed determination to stop the clock. They are lying to themselves and to you. They know, even if only subconsciously, that turkey neck and accordion lips lie not far ahead. Gradually, these pictures of beauty and light become utterly depressing and you realize you’ve been “had.”

Then you understand the photo-realist technique. It presents ultra-real reality; the California reality of eternal, sun-drenched, leisured, youth and beauty that does not exist except in the minds of these delusional models, and perhaps in the initial fantasies of the viewer. After viewing a dozen or so of Hall’s pictures, you get the joke. It’s very subtle.

If she had shown a more typically diverse selection of multi-colored, not-so-beautiful, overweight women in JC Penny clothing, on plastic furniture, eating hot dogs off paper plates around a pool full of screaming children, all in photorealist style, then we could say, “So what?” The way Hall started on the other side with a delusional fantasy of eternal wealth and youth and made it ultra-real with her meticulous technique, the contrast between reality and imagination could not be more stark. Brilliant.

You can see more of her pictures, and buy them, I think, at

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