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Oklahoma City Museum of Art's new exhibit “Photorealism Revisited” captures classic cars

by Brandy McDonnell and Oklahoma City Museum of Art Modified: May 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm •  Published: February 1, 2013
Cheryl Kelley (American, born 1968). "396," 2009. Oil on aluminum panel. Photos provided
Cheryl Kelley (American, born 1968). "396," 2009. Oil on aluminum panel. Photos provided

Oklahoma City Museum of Art Oklahoma City, OK

A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To watch a video about “Photorealism Revisited,” click here.

“Photorealism Revisited” captures classic cars
Several works in the new special exhibition at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art pay homage to automobiles as icons of American culture.

Cheryl Kelley’s fascination with cars started back in her grade-school days of playing in the dirt with her Hot Wheels toys and simply never let up.

Her love of painting is the only childhood passion that eclipses it.

Cheryl Kelley
Cheryl Kelley

“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.”

Robert Bechtle (American, born 1932). "'68 Cadillac," 1970. Oil on canvas.
Robert Bechtle (American, born 1932). "'68 Cadillac," 1970. Oil on canvas.

American icons

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.

“(There’s) this emphasis on the car culture being an important icon of American society. “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. It is considered the first modern movement to regard relying on photos a vital part of the artistic process.

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 works.

“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 you used to 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.

Ron Kleemann (American, born 1937). "Still Life - 24," 2003.
Ron Kleemann (American, born 1937). "Still Life - 24," 2003.

Captured seconds

Although Kelley grew up favoring realism — one of her favorite childhood activities was copying the drawings in her Encyclopedia Britannica set — the 1992 University of Houston graduate eventually embraced abstraction in her work. But the fascinating reflections she saw in the sleek paint jobs of cars prompted her to become a photorealist.

“I would catch myself staring at the car next to me because as you move, the reflection moves and you can see different things. … People in the car behind me would honk their horns at me ‘cause I’m sitting there staring at this car acting like I’m on drugs but I’m not,” she said with a laugh.

“I can move the camera, get different angles, different shots and create these really interesting things happening in the reflections.”

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 like the crosshatching inside a headlight or a bystander reflected on the bumper, side and top of a vintage hotrod, 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.’”


“Photorealism Revisited”

When: Through April 21.

Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.

Information: 236-3100 or


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by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1...
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