Art in a white-walled gallery can take on an aura of total separation from the person who made it, and the context in which that person worked. For that matter, so can murals seen from the car—so often, we’re looking at art in a vacuum. Here’s an antidote: Second Street Gallery’s current show, “Inside The Artists’ Studio.” Curators paired four photographers with four local painters for the purpose of documenting the painters in their studios. In this show, places and personalities come forward to stand next to the finished works they produced.
Each painter/photographer pair gets a dedicated portion of the gallery where canvases rub elbows with color photos. We’re invited backstage to see, for example, what Russ Warren wears when he paints, or the architecture of Ken Horne’s studio, or how Cate West Zahl stores her paints. These details demystify the artmaking process in a way—like watching a baker make bread—but they also tend to elevate the painters in a minor cult of personality.
It’s intriguing to track the way an idea moves from inspiration through work-in-progress to a complete painting. In Warren’s studio, for example, Bill Moretz has photographed little Day of the Dead skeleton figures and folk-art wooden animals—clear precursors to the graphic doglike animal and skulls in Warren’s painting “We All Sat Around in a Circle.” Then again, other objects given a place in the studio may have a less obvious connection, like the Frederic Remington-style bronze cowboy sculpture that Warren contemplates in one of Moretz’s portraits. We learn that Warren nurtures a real variety of totemic inspirations—from tribal masks to a dense wall of postcards to a glass of red wine.
Processes are also evident here. The best of Kristen Finn’s photos of Zahl shows her in a plein-air session outside the Beck Cohen building where they both keep studios. Zahl’s image of the building, and a nearby tree, is juxtaposed with the real-life building and tree. In the painting, the tree becomes more substantial and active, while the building is partially abstracted and takes on a moodier relationship to the sky. It looks like fun to alter reality this way.
The painting, too, is different than the three big canvases Zahl has in the gallery—it’s smaller and more figurative—but seeing her Beck-Cohen image in progress offers insight into how her large, abstract works might develop from architectural beginnings. They invite the viewer into seas of layered color whose linear boundaries are permeable, like the form of that tree.
The most successful pairing in the show is that of photographer Stacey Evans with painter Sharon Shapiro. Evans’ images are more than just documents of Shapiro and her workspace at her Louisa home; they are artworks in themselves. The photos manage to add another layer of meaning to Shapiro’s already meaningful art.
Collage-like compositions reveal the images and words that Shapiro collects in her workspace: magazine clippings, snapshots, a James Tate poem. Handwritten notes show the painter thinking through themes that drive her work: “…critique of culture / joy / central ache / body language / human myth(ology)…”
These words in the gallery next to her paintings don’t explain too much; they just give useful clues. And although viewers can see exactly which found images Shapiro started with—like a photo of women lounging next to a Palm Springs pool—the transformation she achieves still seems like alchemy. The poolside women begin to melt and distend into fragmentary shapes and patterns in her painting “Golddiggers”; the central figure holds a cocktail that Shapiro renders as a garish clump of gold glitter. The scene, originally a depiction of wealth, femininity, and leisure, has become a kind of surrealist melodrama.
Evans suggests something of this breakdown process when she layers several photos of Shapiro into one image, so that the painter appears in three places simultaneously in her studio, working on two different paintings. Her body is partially covered by her work and also reflected in a mirror. As an artist, Shapiro becomes a refraction: a maker, a channeler of cultural norms, and a mind that is inseparable from the work she creates.
Guillermo X Ubilla’s photos of Ken Horne reveal little of his inspirations, but do suggest some of the nuts and bolts of his process: how he paints with the canvas lying flat, and surrounds himself with dozens of jars of Flashe paint. His works favor dissonant, fluorescent hues and blocky geometric compositions based on crude grids, with brushwork so deliberately unrefined it’s unsettling. An occasional burst of precision belies the overriding childlike quality.
A more diverse group of painters (demographically and aesthetically) would have made this show an even more valuable documentary project. But even so, for people who want to make art or just understand art better, it’s very worthwhile to see what it looks like when someone has mastered a practice and given herself the gift of space and time to fully pursue it.