All styles have their heydays and dog-days, times when they're revived and times when they're rejected, but there's something about Photorealism that makes it hard to tell whether it's wretchedly outdated or newly urgent. Its early practitioners depicted the 1960s and '70s with such insistence on the here and now that the style itself is apt to feel dated. Yet it has been revived of late, and very persuasively, by the British painter George Shaw, who rather contrarily, has used its fine-grained realism to depict crumbling housing estates and hence evoke the endurance of the past within the present.
This mini-retrospective of the first-generation Photorealist John Salt suggests these contradictions are nothing new. Salt's style may have crystallized in the 1960s, but his pictures from that period are littered with decrepit cars and rusty trailers. The fact that he has maintained broadly the same style and iconography since the 1970s creates still further disorientation. What can a picture executed in the late 1990s of say, a 1950s subject, in a 1970s style, possibly mean? Imponderables such as this may be among the most interesting things about looking at Photorealism today, but nevertheless one looked to this retrospective to put the chronological brakes on and allow us to get some distance. This it did not do: only five of the 21 paintings and watercolours in the exhibition derived from the 1960s and '70s. And as Salt contributed only one lithograph to the 'Documenta' series produced by his contemporaries in New York for the eponymous exhibition of 1972, this effort at contextualization didn't help much either.
Salt is an anomaly among Photorealists: a painter who trained in Britain but won a scholarship to a college in Baltimore and fell in love with all things American. Southampton's exhibition allowed only disconnected glimpses of his early enthusiasms: the major painting Riviera (1969), a blue-tinted view of the inside of a car; three mid-1970s paintings of domestic trailers, two of them with cars parked or abandoned next to them; and Tractor (1974), which shows a weather-boarded house behind the broken down farm vehicle. Trailer parks and cars have comes to be Salt's twin muses in recent years: sometimes they're shown alongside, and sometimes the cars are parked close to repair garages or pulled up on the overgrown drives of old houses. But cars themselves aren't really his concern - they are merely signs of habitation. Without them the buildings would look abandoned; with them one sees that the people who live in them - whoever they are - are too distracted to notice that weeds are growing up around their lives. Their waste lies about them and they've gone to seed. It's these absent derelicts that matter. Salt's pictures may be mood studies in a sense, but they are also very socially specific and they smack of voyeurism. Indeed, Salt admits that he cycles in search of subjects so that he can approach them unobtrusively (he works exclusively from photographs). You can tell: Blue Car and Two Toned Trailer (1998-9) is captured from the roadside and sheltered only by a balding line of trees.
Though a lot of Photorealists emphasize specific subject matter to a greater extent than their Pop contemporaries, the effect of their work often resonates with an awareness of the surface of the picture. Malcolm Morley depicted torn surfaces in some of his images, while painters such as Richard Estes and Robert Cottingham almost pushed the surface into the picture space itself by depicting reflective surfaces. Salt gets his punch from insisting on the artless reality of his miserable social scene - and in the 1960s, after an age of abstraction, that was a tough punch (it still is, which largely explains the enduring appeal of the style). But looking at Salt just after Donald Judd's retrospective opened at Tate Modern, one was aware that, for all its insistence on pedestrian reality, Salt's image-world doesn't have anything like the emphatic 'here-ness' or facticity of Judd's objects. His pictures are enlivened, even prettified, with conventionally interesting perspectives: they're always still art.
This makes Salt disappointing, and the installation at Southampton only compounded this by displaying some cut-out paper templates he used in constructing his pictures, hence reducing his entire style to a matter of finicky technique. There was much that was irritating about this show, but then Salt's subject matter is the kind of itching, pimpled underbelly that you just want to scratch from morning until night.