at Tibor de Nagy Gallery
This is a delicious exhibition, more complex and original
than acolytes of Right Now could ever grasp. Brett Bigbee
achieves, with grace and commendable understatement, a refutation
of prevailing notions of what constitutes contemporary art.
His contemporaneity does not reside in style, the easily grasped
"look" of the work. He exhibits no solidarity whatever
with "the art of the nineties" or any other such
concession to a facile present.
His painting testifies to the soundness of T. S. Eliots
comment, stated more than sixty years ago, that tradition
is not something blindly handed down but rather searched out
and embraced."Tradition . . . cannot be inherited, and
if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves,
in the first place, the historical sense, which . . .involves
a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of
Bigbee is too serious and knowledgeable a painter to seek
his creative identity in shallow modes wrapped in a time package.
Instead, he does justice to the present by giving life to
what truly concerns him: his wife, his infant son and his
own progress toward maturity.
His means are drawn from those traditional formats and devices
that suit a sensibility that is deliberate, refined and emblematic.
It is a temperament ordained to gravitate toward the hieratic,
linear clarity of the Florentine primitifs, particularly
and inevitably Piero della Francesca. The inclination is reinforced
by Bigbees unabashed interest in American folk painting
which reflects back, at the remove of several centuries, the
power of frontality and stylization, the directness and iconographic
devices of its Renaissance precedents. From a wealth of examples,
what comes straight to mind is Ammi Philips, 1788-1865, with
his impulse toward softly rounded volumes and dream-like moods.
Out of this disarming blend of quattrocento genius and American
naifs, Bigbee creates an art of great charm and quite
modern sophistication. His studio procedure admits no spontaneity
yet the overall effect is fresh and innovative.
The strength of this appealing exhibition lies in the vitality
of Bigbees intuition of the bond between past and present,
between the timeless and the temporal, combined with the gossamer
delicacy of his touch. Built up slowly from a golden imprimatura,
his paintings have the glow of newly prepared fresco. Add
the tempered surface luster of watercolor on silk, a favored
ground of American folk artists. His figures are lit as if
from within more than from any exterior light source. An unfinished
canvas, Morning Street, 1997-99, provides a window
into the working method that yields the characteristic radiance
of Bigbees oils.
The anchor of this show is the stunning Joe (Self-Portrait),
1994-99. The composition soars above the mere mechanics of
picture making. It is the very means by which the piece achieves
its psychological veracity and depth. What Leonardo described
in his notes on portraiture as "the motions of the mind,"
finds both their impulse and parallel in the subtle asymmetries
marking the figure as well as the confining verticals and
horizontals of the shallow space behind it. Bigbees
bias toward decoration is totally submerged here in architectural
detail and colorationa radiant azurite blue that bows
to Holbeinin order to summon recognition of the constricting
pressures of young fatherhood.
A closed door to the right of the figure is countered by
an open window on the left. Through it we glimpse, as in Renaissance
panel portraits, a hint of outdoors and the horizon beyond
the confines of the interior. The view is unlyrical, the geometry
of street and sidewalk doing duty as middle-distance landscape
before it abuts one of Maines coastal bays. Instead
of the obligatory tree, Bigbee provides a spare utility pole,
its crisscrossed cables substituting for branches.
Bigbee sits squarely on a stool level with the picture plane
and aslant of dead center. He wears only white boxer shorts,
their folds painted as gracefully as a turban on the heads
of youths by Uccello or Veneziano. One arm grasps, barely,
the infant Joe, squirming to evade embrace. The other is extended
in a distinctive gesture, palm forward, that occurs seldom
in life but everywhere in the Western traditions variants
on the noli me tangere theme. Bigbee presents
himself in the mirror image of Bramantinos Ecce Homo,
the childs presence altering the suggestiveness of the
pose to one of protection and supplication not unmixed with
The baby is observed with a cool, Netherlandish eye for the
peculiarities of infancy: out-sized head flattened at the
sides, haunches narrower than the belly. The depiction carries
with it respect for natures accommodation of the birth
canal, an image all the more affecting for being clinical.
Modeled with a miniaturists care, its movement suspended
in time, the infant is realized with a tenderness held in
check by an uncommon reserve.
The growth of Joe is mapped in three other paintings, two
of them accompanied by preparatory drawings that are as finished
and satisfying as the final painting. As in all his works
on paper, graphite caresses the page with consummate gentleness,
making drawing as much an instrument of love as of depiction.
Bigbees paintings of his son make no concessions to
familial nostalgia and repel sentimental association with
centuries of putti and plump bambini. Bird I
and Bird II, each dated 1998-99, are exceptionally
fine. Each presents the viewer with a nude male-child, solemn,
unselfconscious, guarded by his own innocence. One figure
varies from the other by only the slightest directional shift
in head and foot and by the position of its arms in relation
to a captive bird.
The modernity of the child is unmistakable. Again, it is
the composition that reverberates with memories of a living
past. The bird-in-hand recalls fifteenth century fondness
for images of the Ladys young Son playing on the ground
with birds. It carries us through the Renaissance in scores
of Holy Family scenes, in Bronzinos delightful portrait
of Giovanni de Medici at 18 months. It crosses paths
with countless folk portraits of children with their pets
Bird I sets the child on a mound of embroidered nature,
a hint of tapestry tradition and of the paradise garden that
serves us still as an emblem of childhood. Bird II
sets him at the edge of wide water, a luminous white cloth
discarded on the sand. In reality, this is probably Joes
nappy but, iconographically, it is cousin to those bits of
white drapery intended to presage the shroud in Renaissance
Nativity scenes. And why not? Outside the garden, nature is
vast; the world as a whole dangerous and disturbing.
Precise as their contours are, Bigbees figures avoid
the sharp cutting edge of primitive paintings. Contours recede
from the eye, the forms enveloped by atmosphere. Subtle blending
of pigmentspulling background color forward into fleshcreates
shade as well as depth. In Joe (Self-Portrait) there
is greater circulation of air, more definitive shadowing and
closer observance yielding more anatomical rendering than
in any other work on exhibit. The figure has a chiseled, sculpted
quality, with a greater tonal contrast that functions inadvertently
as a chastisement to his female nudes. However lovely, these
seem weaker, more schematic, by comparison.
Bigbees females, modeled on his wife Ann Binder, have
a radiant sweetness purged of seductiveness. Beautiful in
an undemanding way, they present themselves less as women
than as embodiments of something unspecified. Of good breeding,
perhaps, or good manners. Ann with Plant, 1990-91,
finds her in an awkward, rather meditative pose, nude but
with her socks still on. If only we had knocked before entering.
Standing Nude, 1991-99, exhibits her, front view, with
the formality and leafy ornaments of a Crivelli madonna. Instead
of lush fruits, Bigbee flanks his modest nude with exquisite
plant cuttings in glasses of water. The ensemble suggests
the triumph of cultivation, delicacy, over the unruly impulses
of nature. Comme il faut and ethereal, her nudity is
as chaste as her sons. Mother, like child, does not
welcome our approach.
The catalogue essay by Sylvia Yount compares Bigbee to Balthus:
"While disquieting moods and a cool eroticism are shared
features of both artists work, one senses a greater
depth of feeling in Bigbees art. " This is catalogue-speak
in an otherwise fine commentary.
Much as Bigbee may have been struck, as all serious figure
painters have been, by the power of Balthus 1984 exhibition
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his work bears little similarity
to the masters beyond a mutual attraction to Piero.
Balthuss passion for Piero was married to an equal appetite
for Courbet, the fusion resulting in such robust glories as
The Room, 1947-48. Here, a magnificent young female
nude stands, arm extended, in the same gesture that lends
historical weight to Joe (Self-Portrait). The origin
of the gesture is the single point of contact. Its purpose,
mood and promise are poles apart, with eroticism residing
exclusively in the Balthus.
Automatic equations of nudity with eroticism rob Bigbee of
his distinguishing characteristic: namely, a counter-cultural
reserve that, paradoxically, expresses feeling through the
strength of the effort made to mute it.
Bigbee is not served by minimizing the emotive depth and sweep
of Balthus oeuvre. It is not necessary to manufacture
claims for Bigbee. His art sustains itself on its own intelligent
and gracious terms. See it and youll understand.