Two figurative artists: New take on old form

ONCE AN ARTIST has acquired the basic skills of how to draw and to mix and apply paint, he or she still has to figure out what to say and how to say it. Figurative painting, which has often taken a backseat to abstraction and newer media, has reemerged in a fresh, new way, and the work of two artists currently exhibiting on Warren Street, Hudson, Vincent Ciniglio at the John Davis Gallery and Mark Beard at the Carrie Haddad Gallery, exemplifies this change.

Ciniglio, whose exhibition opens Saturday, January 8, spoke with The Columbia Paper at his studio in New York City’s East Village last week and invited us to preview his show which opens Saturday in Hudson.

“No matter where you are, it could be a cafe in provincial Germany, you’re going to run into someone you know,” he told me. Mr. Ciniglio and I were fellow painting students at Columbia University MFA program in the mid 1970s, and now he has fetched up in Hudson. I’m not surprised. We have been lucky to have a distinguished group of New York artists exhibiting on Warren Street, and several other old friends, among them painters Peter Acheson and Kathy Bradford, and sculptor Peter Butler whom I know from the city, now show at the Davis Gallery.

After graduation I lost track of Vince until he started exhibiting at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district during the 1980s. At the time I began to follow his work and periodically visited his studio where he would have occasional impromptu exhibitions for friends.

His paintings of awkward but likable figures in oddly evocative situations have taken on a life of their own. Whether they are waiting for Godot or just suffering the mishaps of our crazy world, like playwright Samuel Becket’s characters, they show up and persevere in spite of it all with endurance and good humor.

Some, like the “Soldier in Yellow” in the window of the Davis gallery, sport an anxious, just-dodged-a-bullet look. A giant bride, in “The Wedding” flanked by two dwarf-like attendants emits a sensual majesty. A number of Mr. Ciniglio’s canvases feature dolls as actors in the human drama. In “Sighting” a doll floats face down as a fisherman that would not be out of place in a painting by Winslow Homer paddles toward it.

“A Good Night’s Sleep,” in which a supine figure seems engulfed in a celestial storm recalls Goya’s “Sleep of Reason.” “Red Tongue,” recalls some of Federico Fellini’s baudiest  cinematic moments, and the buddhalike “Doll in Orange,” is as surprising an image as you are likely to find in modern figurative painting.

“If I don’t get a dark side in there somewhere, to me it’s a failed painting,” said the artist.

The subject of Mr. Ciniglio’s paintings is the human condition seen through the prism of the artist’s ironic sense of humor. Tragedy and optimism vie for the upper hand in a drama staged with the deftness of a great director against brilliantly painted backdrops flooded with light that recalls Tiepolo’s painted Italian Baroque ceilings.

“Your early experience programs you. The only thing you can do is to turn it to your advantage,” he said.

Mr. Ciniglio’s early experience includes massive exposure to movies of every sort. At age five he would wander daily into the local movie house in Jersey City, NJ, where he grew up, and would stay all day. Noir films captivated him, and the boy, who had a few friends who grew up to be wise guys, often rooted for the gangsters.

Like many Italian-American kids, he went to Catholic schools, where art instruction involved watching the nun draw in chalk on the blackboard. Far more influential were the polychromed plaster religious statues painted in Sicily that adorned his church. Dripping with bright red blood, glistening with sculptural tears, their dramatic visages never failed to impress him.

“I loved it. It evoked a real emotional response in me,” he said.

As a teen, when Mr. Ciniglio and some friends visited the Metropolitan Museum he came face to face with great art. He remembers the shock of seeing a Van Gogh self portrait and the power of the experience still chokes him up. “I couldn’t believe it, but I proceeded to forget all about it. It was profound, but it had nothing to do with me, but it left an imprint,” he said.

Later, as a young adult, after emerging from military duty served on a base out West, he traveled to Italy, Holland and France, where he explored churches and museums. When he got to Paris he spent a whole week at the Louvre. In Amsterdam he went to the Van Gogh Museum, and marveled at the old masters at the Rijksmuseum.

Back in New York City, he started to think about taking an art course. By the time he found himself at the legendary Greenwich Studio School, a mecca at the time for downtown artistic types, he was in his late 20s. Soon he was enrolled in the school’s rigorous program, painting from the model all morning and drawing from the figure all afternoon. By the end of his first summer, he was judged to be the person who had made the most progress. He stayed three years.

“I was so into it, I never looked back,” he said.

At the Studio School he met Philip Guston, the abstract expressionist who shocked the New York art establishment when he turned away from abstraction to paint the expressionist cartoonish figurative paintings that eventually gained great popular acclaim. Guston suggested Vince follow him to Columbia University’s MFA program, where he taught. There, for a time, Mr. Ciniglio flirted with abstraction and painted in a style reminiscent of Willem DeKoning. Later he returned to his figurative roots, drawing on inspiration from the likes of Goya, Van Gogh, Manet, Beckman and Guston and Francis Ford Coppola.

No branding, please

Mark Beard, whose show at the Carrie Haddad Gallery will run through January 28, objects to the branding of an artist’s style. An artist sometimes becomes so successful that fans wait in line for works created in a particular style and art dealers often ask for more works in that style. Imagine Picasso being forced by an overbearing art dealer to create more Blue Period works when his interests had moved elsewhere.

In protest, Beard has split his overflowing artistic energy and identity into six distinctly different artistic alter-egos, each with a depth of individualized artistic product, a personal history, and a wealth of textural and photographic documentation that includes letters, exhibition catalogues and poetry. His art can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek performance art.

Prominent in the Haddad exhibition is the work of the late British artist “Bruce Sargeant,” artist, athlete and poet, whose heroic paintings are reminiscent of the works of American painters Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent for their rigorous anatomical style, sport an unabashed homoerotic sensuality that conjures up visions of Nazi youth cavorting in the gymnasium. Mr. Beard’s Sargeant-style murals and sculptures appear right at home in Abercrombie and Fitch’s flagship stores, where they are featured decorative elements.

“Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon,” “Mr. Sargeant’s” art teacher, a French academic painter, and two fellow students, American avant garde painter and ex-pat lesbian, “Edith Thayer Cromwell,” and abstract expressionist “Brechtholdt Steeruwitz” also have work in the show, and are members of “Sargeant’s” artistic circle.

Mr. Beard’s ability to assume different characters at will while at work in the studio have led to the creation of a richly multifaceted fictional world that may fool some into thinking that Ms. Haddad has discovered a great collection of art from a specific time and place.

Vincent Ciniglio: Paintings at the John Davis Gallery 36 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, NY, 518-828-5907, runs through January 30, with a reception January 8, 6-8 pm. www.johndavisgallery.com.

Bruce Sargeant (and his circle) will remain on view at the Carrie Haddad Gallery, 622 Warren Street, Hudson, NY, 518-828-1915, through January 28. www.carriehaddadgallery.com.

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