NEW YORK—“Let me tell you, there were four paintings that arrived at 12 o’clock noon on Friday the 12th—on the day of the opening!” said Stephen Bauman, the artist who curated “12×12, A Portrait Exhibition” at the gallery of The Florence Academy of Art’s U.S. branch. In the spirit of stretching the parameters of realist art shows, Bauman, it seems, had invited almost every living realist artist he admires to submit a painting for the exhibition.
“I was horrified by the possibility that it was going to look like a thrift shop,” Bauman joked. That fear dissolved after a very successful opening. The gallery was jam-packed with people looking at the 65 portraits on display. Some paintings sold online before the opening, and others on the spot.
Each portrait is 12 inches by 12 inches in size. That requirement provided enough unity and coherence for the exhibition to work. “I think a square is a cool shape for a canvas,” Bauman said. But there is nothing square about this exhibition. “I knew it was going to be a little bit about different voices kind of singing together that maybe were not all in tune with each other. Eventually, that becomes part of the fun of it,” Bauman said.
Bauman’s idea for the exhibition was an outgrowth of the studies of heads that are often assigned at art ateliers and academies, like The Florence Academy of Art (FAA) in the United States, where Bauman is an instructor. He previously taught at the FAA in Italy and in Sweden.
“We all do these head studies. There tends to be a culture of it. They are done in a particular way, or in a particular time, or in groups,” he said. He then decided to expand that academic assignment out into the real world by inviting artists who were not necessarily trained academically but who are also highly skilled, such as an illustrator who works at Pixar, for example.
Of the 65 portraits on display, most are by artists from the country’s Northeast, followed by artists from Western Europe, Italy, Spain, and a few from Scandinavia. A couple of paintings by a Russian artist didn’t arrive because they were returned by customs. Fewer than 10 of the participating artists are currently working at one of the branches of FAA, and about 20 are somewhat affiliated with FAA, having studied there in the past, either for a short workshop or full-time.
“I just thought I would love to see how all these different styles contrast with each other,” Bauman said.
Technique Over Subject Matter
As a curator, Bauman is interested in the formal approaches of artists, in how they interpret nature, and in what their different technical aspects communicate. It’s easy to get fixated on the subject matter, but he pointed out there is a technical narrative that is also fascinating. He looks for a sense of design and clarity of gesture, and for the organization of colors and values (the relation between lights and darks).
By limiting the subject matter to head studies, something that is objectively observable and in the same scale, Bauman said, you can more easily compare different painting techniques. “I can glean certain ideas and reflections about Travis Schlaht’s approach, for example, and then I can look at somebody on the other end of the spectrum, like Ryan Brown, and view a representation of a head that comes from a similar, but very different place,” he said in the gallery. “They are each representing this objective truth—a head. It could have been feet or hands, but heads are more compelling,” Bauman said, smiling.
“Probably the farthest out on the fringe of our little spot on the map [of realist art] is Andrew Hem, whose work I’m phenomenally impressed by—absolutely amazing,” Bauman said.
Looking at the self-portrait by Colleen Barry, an artist whose work is more on the traditional end of the spectrum, he said, “It is so deeply designed, all of these little gestures, shapes, and articulations. My favorite part of this painting is the ear. Just the clarity of shape and design is fantastic!” he said. “The transparency here, the opacity there, the softness in one place, the crispness in another,” he said.
The “12×12” exhibition also includes several sculptures. Bauman pointed to one by Eudald de Juana. “It is one thing to make a head study. It’s another thing to invest so deeply into the aesthetic qualities of the material that you are using. I mean, look at this—fantastic!” Bauman said.
Bauman’s own work is also included in the exhibition. While he doesn’t look so much to the old masters for inspiration in his own work, he still referenced Rembrandt in describing de Juana’s sculpture. “Eudald is taking the joy of representation and the joy of the material, and really combining those two. It’s what painters love about Rembrandt. The thing that I would love most about Rembrandt has nothing to do with the faces that he’s painted; it’s more about the depth of his paint layers that is so fascinating.”
Overall, “12×12: A Portrait Exhibition” reflects Bauman’s aesthetic sensibility as a realist painter: He admires artists who take chances. “I feel I have a very inclusive sense of the representational boundaries of what is [considered] proper realism,” he said.
The “12×12: A Portrait Exhibition” runs until March 23, 2018, in the gallery of The Florence Academy of Art – U.S. at Mana Contemporary, 888 Newark Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07306.
The artwork can also be viewed and purchased online at http://www.FAAUSGallery.com
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