Cheryl Kelley's fascination with cars started back in her grade-school days of playing in the dirt with her Hot Wheels toys, and it simply never let up.
Her love of painting is the only childhood passion that eclipses it.
“There was a Corvette repair shop in my neighborhood and, typical kind of 10- or 11-year-old fantasy world, I used to call this shop all the time and pretend that I had a Corvette and make fake appointments to bring my car in to get it fixed,” the Houston native admitted with a laugh.
“So the car thing has been an obsession of mine for a long time.”
Kelley, 44, is among the 38 artists featured in the exhibition “Photorealism Revisited” on view at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The exhibit includes two of her paintings of shiny, curvaceous classic muscle cars.
“It's a subject matter that has a lot of meaning for me as well as aesthetic value. ... It's fun to interpret this masculine thing in a feminine way,” she said.
“There's a whole lot of Americana and the American dream and the history of our culture in the automobile and how it's changed over the years. So, there's so much nostalgia, especially now when we have all these cars that look exactly the same. They're all silver and they all look like used soap and there's too many of them. We've lost the aesthetic value, and by losing that, we've lost something as a culture.”
From Ron Kleeman's logo-emblazoned race cars to Tom Blackwell's burly motorcycles, many of the works in “Photorealism Revisited” are devoted to the wheeled machines that are so much a part of American life.
“The photorealist movement is really about capturing everyday life in America,” said Jennifer Klos, associate curator at the museum.
“America and the car culture go hand in hand.”
In 1968, gallery owner Louis K. Meisel coined the term “photorealism” to describe artists who began favoring a new type of realism inspired by photography.
Since urban scenes and pop culture icons have been favored subjects from the start, automobiles have frequently captured the eye of photorealists. Robert Bechtle, one of the movement's pioneers, is known for his paintings of sun-bleached San Francisco street scenes that paid special attention to cars. His 1970 work “'68 Cadillac” is among the exhibit's key pieces.
“There's a huge nostalgic aspect in the automobile that I think pretty much every photorealist who paints a car is trying to tap into. It's ‘remember how things used to be beautiful. Don't forget. Don't forget how much we valued beauty,'” Kelley said.
“The reason why I do it doesn't have to do with trying to identify with the photorealists using nostalgia. It has to do with my own personal history and my own reasons for being nostalgic about the cars.”
Another contemporary photorealist featured in the exhibit, Peter Maier, also has a personal and long-held love of vehicles: He is a former car designer for General Motors.
Even when he isn't rendering cars in meticulous detail, as with his huge black-and-white close-up of a vintage Auburn roadster, his past influences his artwork. Maier created his massive painting of a baby chicken with custom-formulated automotive paint on a panel of black aluminum, giving it an uncommonly smooth and glossy finish.
A classic car collector since her dad gave her a 1972 Datsun roadster convertible for a high school graduation gift, Kelley frequents car shows, where she takes thousands of photos that become the basis for her paintings.
“I don't care what kind of engine it has: It's shiny and it's beautiful. I love the car for the aesthetic value. I don't care what kind of shocks you have on it,” she said. “I want the body to look good, and if it runs, it's fine with me.”
Working from photos not only allows the Fortuna, Calif., resident to recreate tiny details such as the crosshatching inside a headlight or a bystander reflected on the bumper, side and top of a vintage hot rod, it also allows her to capture one fleeting moment of beauty.
“To capture one split second, technically, it's really interesting to do that, but I think there's a philosophy behind it, too, that says that split second is important. And to see that, to steal that one second in time and say, ‘This is important, pay attention, because basically every second is important,' the paintings almost make you just appreciate life more,” Kelley said.
“For me, as a painter/philosopher, it's a good way to show the world. ... Don't just walk by and think, ‘Oh, it's just a car.' No. There's something magical happening here that you need to look at, and I'm trying to show it to you.'”