With quiet clarity, the artist Brett Eberhardt has described two objects in an interior. His worktable, against the studio wall, supports a plate that is now used as a palette. Flawlessly painted, the plate is a manifestation of ideal geometry in a material world. Descended from a circle, transformed into an ellipse by perspective, the plate is fitted perfectly into the composition, so that the highest point on its distant rim is at the center of the image. The shadow it casts, along with the subtle pink reflection under its left rim, echo the curves of the plate, an echo that continues through the arcing stains on the table. The elliptical motifs fade further from the center, yielding to the grid of the main design.
A plate signifies a meal, especially when laid on a table. But no feast seems likely on this rough table, with only one plate, and no food. Paint is our meal. White, blue, and yellow, on red, become a little abstract painting, framed by the rim. Here, in the center, the simple primary colors are the most brilliant hues in the image. The boldest contrast in light and dark is here, too, drawing our eye to the right edge of the plate. Tucked into its shadow is a beautiful sequence of blue, violet and green, edged with orange, which leads us on to the orange and yellow stains nearby. The intensity of color gradually diminishes as our gaze moves outward to the rest of the image.
The table is a testament to objective reality. Its creation can be read in the wood grain on the front edge, near the hammer dents of a careless carpenter. Time passes; things happen; the surface accumulates evidence. The crude solidity of this structure seems unquestionable, until we see the back edge. It nearly disappears against the almost equally pale wall. A delicate stripe of yellow, applied with a geometric stroke that resists illusionism, hovers above, reminding us that this painting, in which paint is so lovingly described, is made with paint. The illusion is made visible: This is not a table.
That yellow stripe: it interrupts the passage from table to wall, where the magic of illusionism resumes. We believe in the little shadows on the wall, cast by the small ridges and encrustations of paint on drywall. That wall seems solid and believable. It is a quiet surface, with the exception of the bold little brown shape on the upper right, which erupts where the present layer of wall paint has flaked away, exposing the color beneath. The layers of paint are history, which seems to have been been duly recorded. But the oddness and isolation of the brown shape prompts an imaginative game, as a cloud in the sky might do: does it look like something else? Maybe a mushroom? It has just enough random irregularity to make us think it was real, and faithfully copied by the artist. Yes, but—its harmonious placement, in this decidedly deliberate composition, puts a wrinkle in my brow, then a smile on my face. Observation and invention contend with each other in every mark a painter makes: sober reckoning versus mischievous fun. Honest recording is a constant difficulty; invention, a necessary relief. Any skillful composition, like this one, with its cropping and framing, the artist’s careful selection of what is shown and what is not, results in a kind of fiction.
There is a story here, and it has a hero. The artist tells us, in the title, that his picture is “After Lopez”. In 1972, the Spaniard Antonio Lopez Garcia, a hero to many contemporary realists, painted a skinned rabbit, on a glass plate, on an old table. Eberhardt saw Lopez’s rabbit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2008, and then went home to make “Red Plate”, frankly acknowledging his inspiration by the Madrid master. Robert Hughes wrote of Lopez that the fastidiousness of his observation exemplified the only kind of aesthetic pride that matters, and that it showed “respect for the power of the eye to surprise the mind”. Brett Eberhardt is more of a colorist, and a more playful inventor, than Lopez, with a less tragic theme. Nevertheless, he shares a lot with Lopez—not simply a plate—but an allegiance to careful looking. His painting makes a case for the primacy of direct observation in artistic practice.
Persistent doubt about our experience is one of the burdens of existence. We try to allay it in so many human activities by examining, measuring, recording, and comparing: all these things a painter does, and in “Red Plate,” Brett Eberhardt does it beautifully. Long meditation, even on an empty plate, nourishes the spirit.
This study was done from life last year, while working along side some of my students. I contemplated cutting it down to become a long horizontal rectangle, eliminating the brown under-painting that is seen above and below the figure. The decision was postponed. It stayed in my studio for months, until one day it was seen by a visitor. He wanted it just the way it was. So, a decision postponed was really a decision made, but not yet recognized.