Western realism is often associated with a scientific turn of mind. Leonardo's painstaking dissections of the human body, Alberti's perspective diagrams, or more recently, the attempts by photorealist painters to mimic the camera all attest to a desire to increase the sum of man's knowledge of the world through careful observation.
This however, is only one side of realism. Other realist painters have displayed an equally powerful interest in harnessing the magic of illusionism in the service of spirituality. In the hands of 19th American landscapists like Thomas Cole and Frederick Church, minutely accurate descriptions of the natural world became a means of conveying the glory of God. 17th century Dutch still life painters recreated remarkably lifelike representations of half eaten meals in order to suggest the vanity of earthly things and the brevity of human life.
Szeto demonstrates an interest in both these aspects of the realist tradition. This exhibition of paintings, which span the years 1988 to 1991, reveals two sides of his work. On one hand, the earlier paintings in this show are marked by what seems an almost clinical objectivity. They are populated by ordinary objects of the sort one might expect to see scattered about the studio or workshop — bits of tape, pieces of sandpaper, rulers, paint rollers, scarps of plywood – painted so illusionistically that they seem to jump off the canvas. While it is possible to read symbolic references into some of these objects – the ruler, for instance, might refer to the idea of measurement or the passage of time, while the old paintbrush may be an emblem of art itself – the cool, analytic style of these works discourages overly subjective interpretations.
However, as we approach the present it is possible to discern a shift in the balance between the emotional and the analytic aspects of the work. As the compositions simplify, the number of objects is reduced and a painterly background gains prominence. "Feather" is an example of this trend. It represents a single feather attached rather precariously with a bit of peeling tape to a light toned background layered with delicate tones of gray, yellow, and lavender. Presented as the sole focus of the painting, the feather gains a sense of pathos and vulnerability.
In the summer of 1989, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, Szeto created a painting which has set the tone for his subsequent works. Entitled Lamentation, it was inspired by his sorrow over the tragedy in Beijing and consists simply of a dried roses painted as if taped near the top of a dark, slate gray ground. A single, shriveled red petal slips like a tear drop toward the lower right corner of the canvas. Szeto quotes a poem by the Qing Dynasty poet Gong Ding which lingered in his mind as he worked on this painting: "Fallen blossoms are not without feelings into spring mud, they stay to nourish the flower."
In subsequent paintings, Szeto does not make explicit reference to Tiananmen Square, but an air of melancholy persists. The backgrounds tend to shades of gray, sometimes textured with bits of overpainted fabric, and their rough surfaces suggest weather-beaten stone walls or chipped slabs of granite of dark marble. The visual focus of each painting is a single flower or a strip of peeling masking tape, painted in high relief as if spotlit from above. But the tape, as it begins to curl away from the wall and the flowers, dried and beginning to shrivel, suggests the effects of time and decay. At the same time, their heightened realism is almost shocking against the muted grounds. They seem plucked out of the everyday world and frozen – even embalmed – in some realm outside of ordinary space and time. In this they resemble souvenirs of relics, evidence of the human tendency to preserve precious objects in a vain attempt to arrest the flow of history.
This suggestion is particularly acute in the case of one of the most recent works, Lamenting, which represents a single rose set off by a massive frame which the artist discovered on the street. Centered beneath the sheltering arch of the frame and bathed in a golden light, the flower resembles a religious icon. Like the curling lemon rinds and overturned wine glasses of the 17th century Dutch Still Life paintings, it seems suspended between eternity and the temporal world.
Thus, for Szeto, the language of realism is elastic enough to permit very different messages. It can be a celebration of the painters' art, paying tribute to the otherwise banal and overlooked details of everyday life. It can also serve as a kind of prism, refocusing and intensifying the light of our immediate reality to illuminate the larger realms of memory, history and spirit. These two possibilities exist side by side in these paintings, linked by the slender thread of the imagination, just as they are in the human mind.