top of page

The Return of the Real: Chapter 5

In continuing my working through Hal Foster´s “The Return of the Real,” I get to the actual subject of the real and indeed its “return” in the work of certain artists.

The content of this chapter is post-modernist art which uses references, pictures, and representations to get at meanings behind the images. Works which exploit or point to the areas on both sides of the image-screen - the subject, the image-screen itself, or the object. In Foster´s concept of traumatic realism, the repetitive photographs of Andy Warhol are not simply a repetition of surface images, but rather (or also) the repetition of a traumatized subject. He makes a compelling case by referencing Freud´s ideas on trauma and repetition, but also Roland Barthes´ concept of the punctum, which for Bathes are the details in a photograph which catch our attention, which for Foster also point at the Lacanian real. For Foster, inconsistencies in Warhol´s repetitions - scrapes and scratches and such - remind us of the real breaking through the image-screen. These punctum position the trauma not in the work, but in ourselves. (

An understanding of the gaze in Lacan is important to Foster´s analysis. The gaze is that which converges on the subject from the world outside. The objects of the world look back on us, make us an object among them. The image-screen is what those objects become within our eyes. It questions the idea that we see the reality of the objects, but rather we see images of them within is. The reality of those objects is the real, and yet because reality is enclosed in images, the real is closed off to us, and perhaps for our sanity necessarily so.

Superrealism traffics in the signs and symbols of reality. It appears to show reality as surface. It attempts to package reality in a surface of signs, to suggest that reality itself is already “absorbed into the symbolic, already closed to the real.” Foster thus positions Superrealism as an attempt to close the real in the image-screen. In its failure to do so, however, Superrealism is labelled by Foster as "traumatic illusionism." If Superrealism hopes to suppress the real, it points to it, as in Richard Estes´ Union Square (1985), where reality seems to "converge on us" more than extend from us. (

Appropriation Art like Superrealism presents work which is at the surface level of representation, however unlike Superrealism, it asks us to look through the surfaces, to look critically at the messages of the surfaces, even perhaps at the ideologies behind their representations. Thus as Appropriation uses the image-screen almost exclusively, it cleverly prompts us to poke through the image-screen.

Foster reflects on Cindy Sherman´s work, and how throughout her career the work seems to move through the positions around the image-screen. He considers how in the film stills from 1975 - 1982, the subject itself is emphasized. The subjects featured in these stills are themselves “seen” and “viewed from another subject, with whom the viewer may be implicated.” (Untitled Film Still #2). The work from 1987 - 1990, seems to be dealing with representation itself - the image-screen. Its themes are princesses, politicians, and fashionistas. The works exist at at the level of the image-screen, at the level of representation, as “the lines of proper representation” are challenged, or exploited. Finally, from 1991 on, subject and object melt into one another through the disheveled body. The internal floods of shit, blood, and discharge attack the image-screen and “evoke the body turned inside out, the subject literally abjected, thrown out. But they also evoke the outside turned in, the subject-as-picture invaded by the object-gaze (e.g. Untitled #153).”

Next, Foster provides us with a glimpse of, and invaluable list of artists which attack the screen at the service of the real, works which do not seek to “cover up the real with simulacral surfaces but to uncover it in uncanny things." See the sculptures of Duane Hanson and John de Andrea, the everyday objects of Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Mathew Barney, Katarina Fritsch, Mike Kelley, and Annette Messager.


Recent Posts

See All

Cecil Taylor - Silent Tongues Pat Metheny - Bright Size Life John Coltrane - Ascension George Szell & The Cleveland Orchestra - Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (1974) John Williams Plays Bach - The Complete

The very nature of the real, is that thing which cannot be represented, which is outside of our world of signs and images. In the previous section of Hal Foster´s Return of the Real (Ch. 6), Foster fr

bottom of page