Problematic “Cool”: Photorealism

Radiator 2002 Michael Tole

I distrust cool. Cool is a lie we tell to protect ourselves from the heat of what really drives us. It is the solidified crust that must be peeled away to reveal the magma beneath, which is the suppressed life force that animates the deadened surface. I’m to an age where cool is a waste of my time. For art to have any meaning in the second half of my life, it needs to breach the crust of cool, and give vent to what churns below.

When I was young, I started painting from photographs.  My girlfriend at the time bought me a Polaroid camera, which I used to take some bad photos that served as the basis for some good paintings.  These photo-based paintings were “cool.” What made them cool was the fact that the subject matter was not the home or retail interior, but the photograph itself and the emotional detachment and distortion inherent to that medium. 

Much has already been written by others about the sense of existential awe created by the distal effect of compounded reproduction. This awe is what strikes me each time I inadvertently stumble upon Gerhard Richter’s photo-based paintings while exploring a new museum. Faced with the searing sense of absence Richter’s work creates, I feel my ego shrink just as it would when regarding a vast starry sky. If that sounds like a compliment, it is meant to be.

The problem with it (and this is what I have been wrestling with for the last five years as I remake my work) is that by dwelling on that distal void we do not have to confront the reality that Uncle Rudi (see Richter’s “Onkel Rudi” 1965) was a Nazi.

The void means never having to own the heat, passion, pain, or cruelty of the reality photographed. It insulates the ego from its effects on the world. This insulation is what makes photo-based paintings “cool.” It is also why I can no longer abide “cool.”

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