All That Glitters: Michael Tole at Cain Schulte



Michael Tole, Untitled (Clover), 2008, oil on canvas (photo courtesy Cain Schulte).

Virtuoso technique aside, Michael Tole’s paintings of Fabergé eggs on view at Cain Schulte until February 21 don’t quite hit the mark. True to the Photorealist tradition, Tole creates paintings from photographs, in this case his own shots.  Unlike some Photorealists, who meddle with the photographic image on the way to completing the painting, Tole faithfully and meticulously constructs his paintings down to the depth of field focus effects and double images presumably found in the original photographs. To be sure, Tole must be admired for his dexterous rendering of these images. Their voluptuousness surpasses even the most accomplished of Photorealists.

But technique alone does not a great painting make. It’s got to have substance. And Tole’s choice of subject matter makes this part problematic.

For contemporary audiences it is nearly impossible to separate the Fabergé eggs—aureate and bejeweled tschochkes first created in 1885 by court jeweler Carl Peter Fabergé for Tsar Alexander III —from the garish excess they came to symbolize in the 20th century as collectables for the obscenely wealthy.  This seems to be Tole’s point:

Although I haven’t the money or desire to buy these pricey trinkets, I find them intriguing both visually and for what they represent as consumer objects and signs of class. I find that successful American capitalists buy reproductions of symbols of European Feudal power as symbols of their own success contradictory, but also strangely telling about the truth of the “American Dream.” I then transform their likeness, through a digital medium, then back into painting (a traditionally elite European art form like the eggs themselves), and finally creating [sic] a new consumer product for an even more elite clients. The final painting is even more Rococco than the original egg.

Nonetheless, I suspect many viewers will feel detached from this subject matter. In fact, detachment seems to be the rallying cry of this collection. Tole has removed all evidence of himself as the painter of these works. The canvases are covered with just one layer of a thin airbrush-like wash with nary a brushstroke in sight.  The artist claims to have distanced himself emotionally from his subject matter; moreover, he asserts that not being versed in the subject matter has been an advantage:

Together the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, and the distance created by the photograph create an objectivity that allows me to see the inherent beauty of these vignettes unencumbered by the learned affinity, apathy or distain that one who is more familiar with them might feel.  The subject matter often feels taboo to my understanding of what art is, yet the newly-created images of them feel seductive.

Tole’s claim to objectivity is suspect. Finding the eggs interesting for their representation of “consumer objects and signs of class” and seeing the “inherent beauty of these vignettes” rings loudly with a point of view, subjectivity even.

Additionally troubling is the fact that Tole hasn’t portrayed the original eggs, but reproductions he chanced upon in a gift shop at the Dallas Galleria. (This is a subtle fact not immediately obvious from the paintings themselves, but from the literature that accompanies the show.) With only 50 in the world, the original Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs are rarified items indeed. In 2004 one of the eggs in Malcolm Forbes’ collection up for auction was estimated to bring $18-24 million.  A copy of the Forbes’ egg will set you back $2,500, within reach of a great many Americans and less expensive than Tole’s paintings of them, as it turns out. It isn’t altogether clear what Tole really trying to communicate with these reproductions (paintings) of reproductions (photographs) of reproductions (the eggs)? That money doesn’t buy class? The contradiction inherent in buying reproduction luxury goods?  That even ersatz glitziness seduces?  This doesn’t feel like a big bold idea or at least unmined territory.

Whatever the message, like the eggs themselves, Tole’s paintings exist as conceits, beautiful and fanciful extravagances for the elite.  These times beg for art that runs deep, that feeds our wounded psyches. My psyche wanted more substance from this show.

Michael Tole: What World Behind Those Ruby Eyes
Cain Schulte, San Francisco

Wider Connections

Michael Tole

SprayBlog interview with Michael Tole

Hen Egg—Fabergé that started it all

More Fabergé

The Photo Realist tradition: Richard EstesAudrey FlackEric FischlClive Head, Jack Mendenhall, Linda Bacon

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