Art Review: “Stuart Bigley: Turning 80” | Visual Art | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Stuart Bigley is best known as a cofounder of Unison arts center in New Paltz, where he served as executive director for 36 years. He is also an artist with a highly developed studio practice spanning several decades. Bigley has produced substantial bodies of work in painting, figure drawing, and multimedia. Unison is presenting a retrospective of his art curated by newly appointed Artistic Director Emilie Houssart in celebration of Bigley’s 80th birthday. Spanning the arc of his career from 1970 to the present, the show spotlights a mature artist still striving to take his art to even higher levels of accomplishment.

“Stuart Bigley: Turning 80” opens on Saturday, June 3, with an opening reception from 4-6pm. The exhibition continues through July 1.

A visit to Bigley’s studio uncovers literally thousands of art works in racks and cabinets, seeming to leave barely enough room for the artist to make new creations. Three easels are placed next to each other and a computer screen glows on a nearby workbench. Adjacent to it is an inkjet printer. A conversation with the artist reveals that his process involves considering whatever he is working on in many different ways.

click to enlarge Art Review: “Stuart Bigley: Turning 80”
Sketchbook, Stuart Bigley, pen and ink on rice paper, approx. 1970

For example, when creating a painting on paper, Bigley works on three variations of the same idea simultaneously. He calls these pieces “siblings” because they contain the same visual DNA. This enables him to work through problems that arise in one of the siblings through manipulation of one or both of the others. New visual discoveries can be shared between paintings and further iterated as well.

One way he uses the computer is to display a photograph of the person that is the subject of a drawing he is working on using traditional media. Bigley notes that he can use the computer to blow up a detail of the model’s face to help him render their likeness as accurately as possible. He is primarily concerned with the factual or as he calls it “forensic” mimesis of his work.

Bigley also uses the computer to merge various techniques of representation. With image processing software, he combines his scanned versions of his handmade drawings with his photographs of the same subject. The layering is fine-tuned to achieve a kind of visual synthesis. Additional coloration may be added with paint software or by traditional painting techniques after the image is printed or through some combination of these two processes.

In his figurative work, It seems that Bigley is circling around the elusiveness of the factual reality that mimetic art strives to capture. He states emphatically that he is not a conceptual artist in any way. What he’s after emerges through his process with no preconception of what the finished piece will turn out to be and with no subject other than the actuality of what he sees.

Houssart has selected works that documents Bigley’s development over his career. This is no small achievement considering the sheer amount of work Bigley has produced and the range of stylistic approaches he has explored as well as the relatively small gallery space.

click to enlarge Art Review: “Stuart Bigley: Turning 80”
“Abstraction,” Stuart Bigley, oil and polyurethane on canvas, 1971

A synthesis of Bigley’s representational and abstract tendencies seems to be emerging. Houssart has included a lovely abstraction from 1972 that has its roots in Kandinsky. On the same wall are two strong self-portraits, one representational paired with another more overtly expressionistic. Moving around the gallery chronologically, on the next wall, there is an excellent off-kilter abstract in brown, green, yellow, gray, and black which is in a style more clearly Bigley’s own. Moving further around the gallery on the third wall, there is a large densely painted abstract which the artist considers important in his development and which embodies a hard won but ultimately successful struggle for balance and formal resolution. Further down this wall is a suite of his figure drawings marrying free-flowing lines with just the right touch of practiced control.

On the last wall is a painting completed this year of dancers performing frenetically on stage, many with multiple arms and legs expressing an almost manic energy. Asked about this latest development, Bigley states he feels that he is “segueing in a way. I don’t know if I’m really going to remain with figures in my paintings from now on or not. I think if I do, they're going to become a lot more abstract, but I don’t know. it kind of feels like they’re all coming together.”

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