Phil Lear: Portraits, Poetry, and Disrupted Reality.
"Art: It has to be honest. It has to be in its own time. And it must have to come from a spark." Phil Lear
Even with the narrow focus this oblong slice of a face provides, we know it is Marilyn. (Need I even say Monroe?) Half in light and half in shadow, it is a portrait of fear and longing, with one eye saying, "kiss me" and the other saying, "save me." Nothing sparks the creative imagination like duality. The night and day of any personality fascinates, but most especially when the life of the person is so public. The public's misplaced idolized love for Marilyn made her an icon; her own misplaced love may have caused her downfall. Lear applies his demand that "art be honest" to how he structured this piece. He offers enough of the nose, that curl of blond hair, and the famous arched eyebrows, for this icon to be recognized, but does not distract with the lips or the chin. Lear focuses on the eyes, which as windows to this soul, show us someone eternally walking an emotional tightrope over a deep dark chasm, all vulnerability exposed. We, the viewers, say in hushed, fearful voices, "Don't look down."
"There is poetry in everything," Lear says, "and the painter - like the poet, or musician, or sculptor - must bring it to the attention, because he [/she] sees what others oftentimes do not." Phil Lear
There is certainly poetry in Lear's version of this ruby red Queen of Hearts. Red Queen is hung at an appropriately dizzying height, as befits Her Highness, the one who ruled Wonderland. Lear has a whole collection of paintings that focus on the carnival and the fantasy creations that can be devised with good costuming. Here for this creature, he takes full advantage of the use of red and its variant, pink. The subtle shades of blue that make the background are the perfect enhancement for this figure who dwells in a world of red (except for her blue eye shadow). Her skin has taken on the pinkish hue of the royal bird, the flamingo. Symbolically, it the occident that the flamingo represents beauty and joy. However, I prefer the Aztec meaning of passion and love. In order to get the full effect of Lear's painted commentary on this Lewis Carroll character, which some say represents Alice's own inner conflicts, one must look at Carroll's life. To fully appreciate Carroll, whose real name was Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a Deacon of the Anglican Church, and what he saw in the character of Alice and this Queen, find a copy of the film Dreamchild, with Coral Brown and Iam Holm. Or take a look (below) at a close up of the face which Lear has painted.
We see a disappointed Queen of Hearts, sitting in her heart-shaped throne, holding a wilting red rose. Her enormous eyes are focused on some distant dream. A sadness lingers there, but then what can you do when you have beheaded all of your lovers? Perhaps the red heart that appears on the upper right of her chest symbolizes, poetically, a heart that is many sizes too small.
Lear was born and raised until the age of 15 in Ontario. His family then moved from Canada to Florida. He grew up drawing, sketching, and writing stories that he would illustrate. Once in Florida, at 18 he enrolled in a four-year commercial art program in Pensacola's Christian College, where he studied with masters in illustration and design and where he developed a passion for painting and expressing beauty. He had a stint in Switzerland doing illustrations for missionaries. There he developed his appreciation for Renaissance art and the art of the late-Victorian era. When he returned to the U.S. in 1999, he entered the world of the professional artist. He is a charter member of Portrait Society of America, and has shown in a variety of galleries, been featured in art magazines, and has won a number of awards (see this link https://www.phillear.com/exhibitions/ ). He continues his artistic journey as he says, "in the company of other fine artists at Cottonwood Artists' School in Colorado Springs."
"I used to put too much in trying to make people get something from my art. People saw and felt something completely different than what I planned for them, and what they felt was even better." Phil Lear
Perhaps starting with his childhood illustrations for stories, Lear has a penchant for action, and he certainly does put a lot into what he is communicating. Coming to Colorado certainly evoked the feeling of the Old West. Here it looks like a new version of the opening scene of the TV classic, Gunsmoke, only instead of seeing Marshall Dillon, we see the result, another one for Boot Hill. From the look of the clock, this guy didn't make it to high noon. Lear's ability to handle the technically difficult positioning of this body, not only realistically shows the impact of that shot, but also furthers the action as that person falls toward the viewer.
Lear always looks for ways to expand his art and trying out work on different types of surfaces does not deter him. In a series of what he calls saloon tiles, he worked on tiles in fragile condition with lots of imperfections. The tiles came from an actual old saloon in Salida, Colorado, that was being renovated. Lear took as many of the old tiles as he could, put a varnish on them to trap as much of the dust and old footprints as possible, so they could provide texture and authenticity as a background for portraits of his notorious subjects. Yet, despite the difficulties working with such fragile surfaces, he was still able to create portraits, "featuring all your favorite gunslingers, bank robbers, and derelicts of the Old West."
Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, and Doc Holliday make up this trio of nerdowells. Though working with the aged tiles that support these portraits took a lot of effort, one can only agree with Lear's estimation that "the imperfections were part of what made them unique."
"I've learned that it [art] is constant experimentation, asking questions, finding solutions, from the beginner to the master. In my recent charcoals, I've been trying to loosen up; managing a controlled recklessness has been the goal, not detail." Phil Lear
There has been something happening in art in the last 10-15 years that John Seed calls "disrupted realism" in his book of the same name. In terms of the figure and the portrait, it means that what is drawn realistically then moves off into illusion or dream-like representation.
When I look at this trend, I am reminded of a book that was quite popular in the '60s, when Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor of philosophy and insightful analysist of media and where it was going to take us, came up with the terms hot media and cool media. Hot media is highly visual with as many details as possible given. Not that much is left to the imagination (think of watching a movie). Cool media on the other hand leaves lots to the imagination (think of reading a novel). When Phil Lear talks about his new works in charcoal and loosening up, there is something of this concept in his work. There is lots of emotional expression in the work, but it certainly begs the viewer's imagination to participate to fill in and relate as one wants, to finish or not finish the image.
One can see in the pieces above the use of just enough to begin a dramatic story. The viewer is free to take these pieces in any number of ways. Lear maintains his ability to control his artistic risk taking in order to give us something to ponder.
These pieces once again balance the exact and recognizable with the representation of the energy of the moment, whether it is a free fall or someone tumbling from a shockwave. We get just enough to let us feel the emotion and to begin to wonder the circumstances, which may be those parts that the viewer will then fill in "better than what the artist had planned." These new works are currently on display at Robin Schneider's Art 1 Eleven Gallery in downtown Colorado Springs and well worth a visit.
We leave this look at Lear's work with another of his evocative female portraits. For sure this depicts a blow-out of a party. One might be tempted to think the subject stayed too long at the fair and didn't hear them play "The Party's Over" or see the lights come up. However, we can't be too harsh, because the gentle smile that plays at her mouth would indicate that her dreams for the New Year are sweet indeed - once she gets through her hangover headache.
Phil Lear's work can be seen on his website: phillear.com
And at the following Colorado galleries:
Squash Blossom Gallery
2531 W. Colorado Avenue
Colorado Springs, CO 80904
(719) 632-1899 Old Colorado City
Art 1 Eleven Animas Fine Art
111 E. Bijou Street 1222 San Luis Street
Colorado Springs, CO 80903 Trinidad, Colorado