Get Visual is the proud recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Richard Butler at BCB Art

Installation shot of Richard Butler's drawings and paintings at BCB Art in Hudson
photo provided
You've heard Richard Butler - he's the lead singer from the Psychedelic Furs, with the wonderful bass/baritone voice featured on the hits "Love My Way" and "Pretty in Pink" - but you may never have heard of him as an artist. Currently presenting new drawings and paintings at BCB Art in Hudson in a show entitled Happinessisthespace betweensorrows, Butler amply demonstrates his skill in that department, along with a witty darkness that should come as no surprise from an original '70s-era punk rocker.

Small Ashwednesday oil on canvas
What struck me first looking at Butler's paintings is the fact that this guy is truly a painter - not some star who decided he wants to paint now, but a trained artist. Indeed, he graduated from art school in the United Kingdom, where he grew up before making it in music and settling in the United States (he now lives in Beacon). Butler loves to push the paint around, while crafting representational images (all the work in this show are portraits) that, up-close, are juicy and smooshy.

Not much of a colorist, Butler's palette hews mainly to shades of black and white with a bit of red, green, or brown mixed in, but he holds a great deal of attention to light and the way it bounces off of or activates surfaces such as the skin and moist eyes of his sitters.

Amanitadreamer 2
The sitters appear both lifelike and severely altered, whether by heavy makeup in the form of a black cross, bandages, or even flaying. However, the work is more contemplative than grim, more theatrical than painful. He plays with words in the titles, many of which reference the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday, but some of which are more poetic, such as Hypochondriachost and Whateverwhereverwhenever. Again, no surprise from a successful songwriter.

Gallery owner Bruce Bergmann told me he encouraged Butler to get back into drawing, and the show includes several chalk drawings on black paper that have a pleasant floating quality, with ghostly busts emanating spindly lines of energy or light. These evoke Giacometti's wasted creatures, but also connect to the paintings and extend the Ash Wednesday theme of the smudged cross on the forehead.

Overall, it's a strong show with a fresh perspective, some nice, arty obsessiveness, and great technique. It runs through August 12.

Large Ashwednesday oil on canvas



Sunday, July 15, 2018

Keepers of the Flame at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950 oil on canvas
Note: This painting, currently part of Keepers of the Flame, was recently sold by the 
Berkshire Museum amid controversy; it will remain on view at the NRM through 2020, 
and eventually move permanently to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles
This summer's special exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Ma., operates on several levels, and it offers the viewer pleasures and challenges on all of them. Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell, and the Narrative Tradition, on view through Oct. 28, was curated by University of Hartford Professor of Illustration Dennis Nolan based on a fascinating thesis he has developed that traces the three protagonists' artistic lineage back through the centuries. The show also somewhat unusually includes Nolan's own colored-pencil-and-watercolor illustrations, something I was especially interested to see when I went there.

N.C. Wyeth In the Crystal Depths
1906 oil on canvas
Keepers of the Flame is organized into four rooms - three that each focus on one of the key artists (and his significant teachers), and one that sums up the whole concept. On the surface level, we can simply enjoy the show's more than 60 paintings and drawings for what they are: Expertly crafted works by the top artists of the "Golden Age of Illustration" (approximately 100 years ago) and their immediate and more distant predecessors. This level of engagement could be enough for the casual visitor, as there are many fine examples of work by the Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth (Andrew's father), and Norman Rockwell, all of whom are extremely likable artists, and the choices from the past that have been gathered from near and far to augment their works include a number of big names (such as Jean-Leon Gerome and Thomas Eakins), and many worthy pieces by lesser-known painters (Henry Siddons Mowbray and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant were both happy discoveries for me).

William-Adolphe Bouguereau The Little Knitter
1882 oil on canvas
But the show also provides a deep layer of education - actually two layers of it, the first being the education of the viewer about these artists and the tradition of illustration they worked within. Here, too, there is plenty to work with. A conversation I overheard during my visit to the show is a perfect example of this element of the experience. A couple were viewing paintings in the room devoted to Parrish (where three William-Adolphe Bouguereaus were also on display), and the woman remarked that her own art-school training was explicit in distinguishing illustration from painting based on technique: that a painter must work from life - say, with a model or on-site landscape - and must not use a grid to lay out the final composition, while an illustrator can use any trick they like to create their design.

Being me, I butted in and offered my opinion that it makes more sense to distinguish by intention - that modernism pretty much took away arguments about technique or material in art, but that it still seems that a piece is commercial if its intention is to serve some purpose other than the artist's self-expression, and that it is fine art if it serves no other clear purpose (regardless of quality). I recall that we referred to one of the Bouguereaus for reference, but couldn't determine by looking at it if it was meant to tell a story (like an illustration) or if it was more clearly a product of the artist's personal expression. The man then added thoughts related to musical composition (turned out he's a professional cellist), citing similar arguments and disagreements in that field. The point? Not that we came to a consensus in defining illustration versus art, but that the exhibition had caused us to engage heartily on the subject.

George Bridgman Keeper of the Flame 1904
charcoal, ink and oil on board
(Later, I was delighted to find that some of the label copy that accompanied another Bouguereau went into specifics about his technique, noting that he worked from the live model and did not use a grid, which supports the "fine art" interpretation based on technical criteria.)

The other element of education that pervades the show is actually its raison d'etre: An intriguing, deep dive into the influence of teachers on their students, presented as numerous juxtapositions featuring label copy that persistently identifies all the artists as teacher, student, or both (e.g. Norman Rockwell, American 1894-1978, Student of George Bridgman; Henri Lehmann, German-French 1814-1882, Student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Teacher of Francis Coates Jones). Wonderfully, many of the juxtapositions went beyond strict pairings, with combinations of teacher in the middle and students on either side, or strings of teacher to student, that student then as teacher to another student, and so on.

Nolan has added text panels to this section of the show with reverse-chronological lineages that trace back through time from our three 20th-century protagonists to their common influences in the mid-1800s academies of France (and beyond). These strings are gathered together into Nolan's charming tree drawings, and each of the rooms is pointedly titled (i.e. "The Education of Norman Rockwell"), which further underscores his thesis.

Though I found the counting backwards a little hard to follow, this element of the exhibition was so unique, so meticulously researched and documented, and so passionately expressed, as to be quite irresistible. Nolan, who also wrote nine chapters for a big catalog that accompanies the exhibition, clearly spent many years on this project, and the effort shines through. Not that we remain mired in the past here - the final room includes a whopping interactive digital screen that works like an encyclopedia, allowing viewers (even two at a time) to tap Nolan's massive genealogical-style illustration of the artists' tree of influence and thereby learn the history of and see more images by each person represented. It's technology that has a purpose, that works, and that was actually fun to use (though I was disappointed to note that most of the visitors I observed just clicked on our three main illustrators, rather than digging into their historical counterparts, somewhat undermining the digital display's real point).

Adequate but acceptably brief label copy, and incisive quotes in wall texts augment the exhibition without overwhelming it. Still, it was a lot to take in, and I found myself often using conveniently placed gallery benches to grab breaks. But the quality of the show and the art in it kept reviving my interest. If you go (and I recommend that you do), allow plenty of time. It will be rewarded.

Maxfield Parrish Solitude, 1911, Oil on board