In the Weston Art Gallery’s new group exhibition Narrative Figuration, on display now through June 5, curator Daniel Brown assembles five talented local artists whose chosen mode is representational, figurative work. All five artists have studied at the University of Cincinnati (DAAP). Their work focuses on genre scenes, with a renewed interest in beauty.
While much of the work is concerned with the immediate reality of the figure in its environment, they are not a simple case of verisimilitude — representational-realism painting mimicking what the eye can see for itself without the need for the art. Rather, these artists find abstraction by editing with the eye. The result is edgy.
“These works equate with psychological space,” explains Brown, also an arts critic for Aeqai online magazine. “It’s that sense of looking inward. The interior mirrors the self.”
Interior space is deeply psychological in Kentucky-based artist Robert Anderson’s work. Figures in stark interiors emphasize the relationship between the people and space.
“The isolation of the figure gives a way for the viewer to enter into the subject's psychological space as well as think about the figure's external relationship to its surroundings,” Anderson writes in an email. “For me, this simultaneity is at the heart of the conceptual drive for the paintings in the show.”
Anderson is a full-time artist who previously taught as an adjunct at Miami University and the University of Cincinnati (DAAP).
Anderson’s bodies twist, recline and blur with motion against austere landscapes. He works with a meticulous verism — favoring everyday subject matter — and reveals a high level of draftsmanship in his under-drawings.
Tim Parsley, assistant director of Manifest Creative Research Gallery, also works with verism in paintings and drawings celebrating domesticity.
Ironing clothes and picking up his son’s toys become ritualistic. Even in his sculptures (not on display), he glorifies chores, the broom being a favorite subject. In his two-dimensional works, crisp light and tight interiors aim for the intimacies of a Jan Vermeer painting.
The horizontal composition of “End” reveals the torso of a man washing dishes. As with Vermeer, the figure is highly illuminated by natural light. You can draw many conclusions from the title. Is it is the end of dinner or the end of a marriage?
The figure is in a state of undress in Emil Robinson’s pastel drawing of his wife, “Transformation.” Varied lines give motion to the folds of an unzipped dress and stillness to the face and extended arms. Her shoulder is fully fleshed out while the pastel becomes a thin veil over the paper as her arm recedes, adding depth of field. Like a Degas, gestural strokes define the edges of her skirt.
“I love Degas, I can’t help it,” Robinson says, laughing, during an interview at the gallery. Robinson currently teaches at Manifest Drawing Center. “But what I was interested in is the combination of both the physical power of the body and vulnerability. When you are undressing, you are in this moment of vulnerability. Your arms are bound up, your clothing is simultaneously concealing and revealing.”
Another pastel portrait of his wife, “The Letter,” is absolutely fiery. A woman holds a letter up to her white bra. There are hints of Odilon Redon in her curved posturing and beautifully simplified face, almost just a smudge of warmth. Robinson says he’s a pastel amateur, but he varies line and manipulates texture brilliantly. He uses a combination of hard, cheap chalk pastels and some rich buttery ones. He drags an aquamarine pastel over the neutral background, giving it the texture of chipping fresco. There’s magic in the cast shadow.
“As someone who works with light and shadow as one of my muses, I’m interested in the mystical capabilities of those things,” Robinson says. He treats light and shadow as physical objects. Warm edges radiate from a purple core, transforming a cast shadow into a synthesis of color, light and darkness.
In two oil paintings by Daniel O’Connor, “Waste” and “Towel Rack,” the figure is implied in its absence. There is evidence of human interaction in a toilet-paper roll balancing on a towel rack and dental floss draped over a wastebasket. A sliver of white tissue on a bare roll is a singular, organic shape, cutting through the smooth lines of the cylindrical tube. O’Connor constructed the tile floor in “Waste” by laying tile on a Masonite board.
“The unfinished tile was more of a decision to show a contrast between something that was completely happenstance and coincidental (the wastebasket) and something that was fabricated and constructed for the world of the painting,” says O’Connor, who holds an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and has exhibited and currently teaches at Northern Kentucky University.
Cincinnati-based artist Tina Tammaro teaches private classes at her studio and paints with wild inhibition. A complete departure from quiet domesticity, her interiors are abstract strokes of color in which the human figures explode. They navigate the dangerous minefields of human relationships, full of volatility, indifference and innuendo. This drama makes even her small paintings feel larger than life.
Tammaro says she identifies with the artists, like Max Beckmann or Van Gogh, who struggle to express their experience in the world. For instance, in “I wait without wonder,” a woman sits forlorn. Tammaro says she is more concerned with thoughts than outward appearances. Thus we see with a few expressionist strokes and a sickly brown palette how she reveals the pain in the woman’s face.
Her body is hemorrhaging rage and sorrow, indicated by red shadows. She is as powerful and unhinged as the heroine in John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night; a wilting beauty unraveling on stage. Behind her, a balding man stares at her, meekly tucking his hands in his pockets. They wait.
NARRATIVE FIGURATION is at downtown’s Weston Art Gallery (in the Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St.) through June 5. There is a gallery talk Thursday at 7 p.m. Visit www.westonartgallery.com for more info. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.