Monday, August 20, 2012

Mark Bush's Portraits

Mark Bush, Daniel. 
Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 18"
Selection for BP Portrait Award 2011 Exhibition,
National Portrait Gallery, London
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Mark Bush: London 2011 occupies for the moment a corner of the Hammond Harkins Gallery space in Bexley, Ohio. The black and white portraits on display have nothing whatsoever to do with London, England, nor with London, Ohio, for that matter. One cannot blame owner Marlana Hammond Keynes for the implied whoop in her title, however, for Bush was among the fifty-five painters chosen from across the world to show in the British National Portrait Gallery's BP Portrait Award 2011 exhibition. If you visit the "Exhibitors" link on that site, you can survey the excellent company the young graduate of Columbus College of Art and Design is keeping. The BP Portrait Show is among the most elite art competitions.

Bush works in the realm of "photographic realism," a style I find more and more intriguing for its many artifices. His black and white portraits are rendered with minute attention to the range and nuances not only of grays, blacks and whites. Those remaining hairs on Daniel's receding scalp? They are enumerated, elaborated and each given its proper color and position. This degree of vigilance to detail goes beyond any normal idea of the photographic, however. Could a camera have caught each hair just so and have simultaneously captured every other near-microscopic detail—every single articulated stitch in the gloves, every fold of flesh at each knuckle, the precisely trimmed edge of his cropped head? Perhaps, but the issue is focus. Our human eyes cannot focus on every detail of a scene this large all at the same time, yet Bush gives us the impression that this is indeed what we would catch in the blink of an eye; it's the look Daniel would give to an unwanted click of the camera lens, or an interruption that makes him drop a stitch. The "camera eye" is the gift of this huge collection of focal points, impossible to attain in reality. That we call this impossible hyper-focus "realism" is the most outrageous thing about such painting.

The amazing thing to me is that every detail of this canvas forces us viewers to notice the painter's determined acuity and strong will. This canvas shudders with purpose. It puts the shutter to shame. Whatever Burns has captured of Daniel, he reveals with equally intensity about himself.

Hammond Harkins does not have the BP portrait on the wall, but it has a selection of Burns' portraits that demonstrate, within his self-imposed discipline of black-and-white acrylic-on-canvas, a fascinating range of effort. All of his portraits are penetrating, realistic images of people in poses of the moment, yet Burns nevertheless seems to be studying several different artistic approaches to his subjects. He seems to be dedicated to exploration at this early point in his career.

Mark Bush, Mr. Norman
Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 32"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Georges de La Tour, 1640,detail
Magdalen with Smoking Flame
LA County Museum of Art

A portrait of one of his teachers at CCAD, Mr. Norman is set in darkness, as if lit only by a candle or flashlight—twenty-first century Georges de La Tour. It is painted not in blended brush strokes, but almost entirely in daubed and smudged paint. The painting suggests Chuck Close, with the face-to-face composition and the lack of line in creation of the image. The facial surface is rendered in a way that gives Mr. Norman's skin the look of roughly modeled clay, or the tough hide befitting a man whose eyes, brow, and mouth suggest, in momentary surprise, a deep combination of searching and knowing.

The weave of the subject's woolen or flannel shirt, too, is rendered in a grid of daubed paint. Close likes to compose his subjects on a centered grid. While Bush attains a similar intensity of gaze and horizontal position of this subject, he has still pushed Norman to the side of the canvas, so he hasn't emulated Close's centering technique. But I can't help but wonder if the simple checked plaid doesn't refer to Close's grid, a sort of homage from the closet, as it were.

Mark Bush, True Grit
Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
True Grit, a portrait of the artist's father, might be said to have many characteristics of a Close portrait—the centered face, the size of the face within the borders, the straight-ahead gaze—but the tough intimacy is Bush's own. The face is half-disguised by the cigarette-holding hand. In truth, it may be better said that the hand constitutes the bottom half of the face; it is as important an identifying element as the deeply furrowed brow and the eyes with such far-away, dim reflections of light in them. Smoke and mirrors? Those mirrors take some searching for, but the hand holding the stubby cigarette is big and awfully interesting and hardly disguises the story of the man.

Here, as in the portrait of Mr. Norman, Bush's rendering of his subject's aging flesh becomes a study in abstraction the more closely he pursues the realistic. The details of the man's furrowed knuckles appear as soft swirls of cloud or distant fogs; his eyes and forehead are painted with such surface detail that they are like a geographer's aerial photograph of the earth, a small patch of one human's skin transformed into uncharted lands, rather as Edward Weston used his camera in 1930 to turn a green pepper into an object of mysterious sensuality.

Bush's realism invites other comparisons too, but again his work is his own. In portraits of a little boy and a pretty, blonde young woman, he enters Norman Rockwell territory. The subjects may be his familiars, but their appearances would have put them right into a casting book for Rockwell: the all-American good looks, the innocent, pretty, and expressive child; the fresh, wholesome femininity of the blonde.

Mark Bush, Hear Me Roar
Acrylic on canvas, 26" x 18"
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Hear Me Roar is indeed difficult to distinguish from a photograph. The realism with which Bush has rendered the face and hair are uncanny; it is only the evidence of the canvas' surface supporting the paint that verifies for the viewer that this is, truly, painted: Bush has eliminated the traces even of brush strokes. If anything betrays his hand, it's that the letters on the child's shirt are so clear that they appear to be from a competing reality. But the child's hand right hand is in motion, another trick the painter has used to heighten the illusion of veracity.

What grabbed me about this is that the child, while being a model, adorable little boy—the tousled hair, the Cupid lips, his posed participation in the eternal motif of boys growing into their roaring powers—departs from it too in his expression. At first, I was indeed ready to credit him with the Rockwellian mischieviousness, that position of innocence at the moment when it is disabused, or is caught in naughtiness learning its lesson. Examples abound, like this, gleaned from the famous No Swimming cover (below) that I saw in the Dayton Art Museum's show of Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post in January 2012.

But Bush's little boy is markedly different, for where I thought I saw at first a glint of mischief in the cant of his eyebrows, there is nothing of the exaggeration that is Rockwell's hallmark. Bush, if anything, works against the type. He sets up the composition to have us respond stereotypically to the subject, as we do of every little boy. We are prepared to take, from the outset, the fundamentally patronizing position of an adult.

But this child is a human being first. He is thinking something over; he is considering. Although his right hand and arm are moving, his mind is elsewhere, sizing up something or someone who doesn't realize that she or he is being watched. What do children do, anyway? They keep tabs, they look around and they figure things out on their own. Bush's child is realistic in that sense too: He is doing what real children do most of the time.

The pretty young woman of Just Peek is a similar case of thwarted generic expectation. In this 20 x 16" novelty portrait, one expects the subject to be the girl's flirtation coyness. As in Hear Me Roar, the painting is almost entirely lacking any evidence of brushwork. But do her eyes really relay a come-hither or laughing message? Although her eyes are wide open, the corners aren't wrinkled, the forehead isn't creased by the lifted brows, and there is no evidence of drawn muscles as there would be in an exaggerated or "cute" expression. In fact, there is a real intensity and an unnerving directness. Perhaps the scarf is not the veil of coyness, but is held protectively before her, as a screen. Like the Rockwell boy immediately above who has just learned the unfortunate truth about Santa in The Discovery, this woman appears to confront something shocking: The viewer, perhaps, into whose eyes she stares.

I am eager to follow Bush's development. I'm excited to see that someone of such skill is able to apply it in different ways, and has such control not only over his materials, but over the many possible ways to travel. The self-awareness and independence his work shows are refreshing; they are the marks of a young artist who knows what he's got and is good enough to see how far he has to go—how many discoveries await him on that long career ramble.

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