Superrealism and Traumatic Illusionism

The very nature of the real, is that thing which cannot be represented, which is outside of our world of signs and images.

In the previous section of Hal Foster´s Return of the Real (Ch. 6), Foster frames Warholian repetition as an attempt to screen the traumatic real. Indeed Lacan himself defines trauma as a missed encounter with the real, and defines repetition as the act, or the destiny, of the traumatized subject. The traumatic repetition of Warhol, especially in the early works featuring disasters such as car crashes, hopes to screen the real, and yet the traumatic real returns in this screening. This return, this break in the representation, is compared to the concept of touché in Lacan (see the Unconscious and Repetition) , and the concept of the punctum in Barthes (see Camera Lucida). This is what Foster refers to as traumatic realism. (See my previous post:

Traumatic illusionism on the other hand is reserved for the work of superrealism (see Richard Estes, Malcolm Morley, Don Eddy, Audrey Flack), which attempts to package reality in a surface of signs, to suggest that reality itself is already “absorbed into the symbolic, already closed to the real. Superrealism seems to be, rather than repeating the traumatic encounter as in Warhol, an attempt to cover up the traumatic real. "to stay on top of it, to keep it down." However, in as much as superrealism fails to arrest reality in a surface, it still points to the real, and therein lies its illusionism.

Foster asks us to consider how in Richard Estes´Union Square (1985), we seem less like the subject looking out at the world, and rather an object within it - reality seems to "converge on us" more than extend from us. This is framed in disucssions of the image-screen as it relates to Lacan, and the idea that at the point at which the subject catches the light of object, the gaze of the object catches the subject.

What follows is an excellent summary of the gaze and its relation to the image-screen in Lacan. Namely, Foster reminds us that Lacan locates the gaze in the world, rather than in the subject. In other words, reminds us that there is a difference between the view, or eye of the subject and the actual gaze. The later situates itself outside in the world, and contains the threat that the object is indeed looking back on the subject.

The concept of the gaze, with the remembarance that it is to be found in the world, seems to remind us of our subjectivity, of our inability to find true objectification, our inability to touch the real. The gaze of the world, which appears on all sides, reminds us that we are also part of the „spectacle“, that we are but a "stain" in the total picture. "The picture is in my eye, and I am in the picture.“ (Lacan)

Using the antecdote of a sardine can floating in the sea, which catches the light of the sun and refracts it towards our eyes, Lacan points out that not only are we under obeservation from all sides, but that our image of this object is indeed that – an image within our own eye. Thus, the image screen – the representations within us of what we think we see – shields us from the real. "In this way the screen allows the subject, at the point of the picture, to behold the object, at the point of light. Otherwise it would be impossible, for to see without this screen would be to be blinded by the gaze or touched by the real." (Foster pg. 140)

In other words, we catch the gaze and tame it as image. The image screen is what stands between us and the gaze, what shields us from the real.

Superrealism is an attempt to neutralize the gaze, "not only to pacify the real but to seal it behind surfaces, to embalm it in appearances." In so much as superrealism, with its "anxiety" to seal reality, fails at covering the real - it still points to the real, and thus "fails not to remind us of the real, and in this way is traumatic too: a traumatic illusionism." (Foster pg. 144)

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