Discover ‘INSIGHT’ From Five Distinct Realist Portrait Painters Who Command Our Gaze

Her head tilted slightly to the viewer’s left, a girl gazes directly at us, but our eyes are drawn around her face, embraced by wild wisps of green hair intertwined with horns of a ram, tentacles of an octopus, feathers, flowers, and a glowing bug. The meticulous details of her face, every faint hair and freckle mimicking a photograph, are juxtaposed by the magical realism swirling around the circular canvas.

Fifth Element (Quinto elemento) (2022) by Spanish painter Jesus Inglés embodies an array of mythical, symbolic forces of nature. The title evokes both aether, the mythical fifth classical element, also known as quintessence, and Boron, the modern element with atomic number 5 on the periodic table. Exploring the composition, we ponder the theoretical universal substance once believed to be the conduit for transmitting electromagnetic waves, such as light and X-rays, as well as the brittle, dark, lustrous metalloid.

Feeling alienated as a child, Inglés shunned the normative, believing his peers all looked the same. His art is anything but homogeneous, depicting distinct women figures mingling with nature to convey otherworldly visual narratives.

Inglés joins fellow Spainard Arantza Sestayo, along with Dutch artist Alexandra Klimas, Ukrainian artist Roman Pankov, and Australian artist Anne-Marie Zanetti, whose work is on view through June 24 at Rehs Contemporary in New York, in partnership with Art Renewal Center (ARC), a not-for-profit, educational organization hosting an online museum dedicated to realist art. The exhibition, INSIGHT, features mostly works where the subject makes eye contact with the viewer.

Venture into Sestayo’s Desert (2022), where a young woman gazes downward as she pours water from a giant bowl to hydrate turtles. An illustrator, painter, and draftsman, Sestayo borrows from the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau to create ethereal fantasy scapes that transcend time and space.

Klimas names her portraits of cows after women to underscore our connection with the animal subjects and to raise awareness of dairy farms in the Netherlands. Just double the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey, the Netherlands grew to the third-largest dairy exporting nation in the world in 2019. Dutch agriculture production contributed 14 percent percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, prompting the government to limit farm operations and cap emissions of nitrogen and phosphate. In 2019, the country pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent by 2030 (compared to 1990) and 95 percent by 2050.

Wendy the Cow (2022) confronts us, her bovine visage framed by a central black panel that reminds us of pioneering color field painter Barnett Newman’s signature “zips.”

We return to the human figure with Pankov’s Obscurity (2022), relying on a watercolor painting technique that builds subtle texture while retaining fine details. The monochromatic portrait obscures the subject’s eyes, inviting us into her psyche. Pankov subverts his study of Old Masters, as prominent light emanates from the upper right, illuminating the woman’s flowing dark hair.

Zanetti lightens the mood with Aisling (2022) from her playful Reminiscence Series depicting her youngest daughter Bec to engage in a dialogue with younger self. Though she’s capturing memories from 1970s and 1980s adolescence, this work conveys more of a 1960s and 1970s vibe. Zanetti seeks to empower young women through her vibrant portraits of Bec in vintage sunglasses posing against vivid patterns.

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