Artist Spotlights

a digital collaboration between
ArtsWorcester and Clark University

Art History 201: Art, the Public, and Worcester’s Cultural Institutions, at Clark University gives students the opportunity to work closely with regional contemporary artists. With individual artists from ArtsWorcester's gallery programs, the students hone their visual and critical skills by producing short essays positioning the artists' work within contemporary art history. This year, the students also curated small selections of their artist's work for these online spotlights.

This collaboration was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Table of Contents

Finding One's Own Meaning in Abstract Art

by Natalie Stillwell

When we admire abstract art, what are we looking for? What feelings develop inside of us the longer we ponder, question, and stare at an abstract work of art? What is the artist trying to make us see or feel? Worcester-based artist John Hayes-Nikas challenges art fanatics to take a deep dive into his art and draw their own meanings and emotions from his work. He offers little explanation but a world of meaning in his two series The Return and Structure and Matrix.

Hayes-Nikas has two current series, one entirely focused on black and white shadows and shading, and one of bold and colorful abstract designs. During an interview last fall, Hayes-Nikas said he wants people to look at his art and draw meaning from his artwork not for just the colors he chooses but for all elements of the piece they are viewing. Hayes-Nikas creates art without a set plan or blueprint; instead, he creates with emotion and passion. He describes his art as something he’s holding inside of himself that he needs to let out into the world. Even though he doesn’t necessarily plan his designs beforehand, he knows what he needs to create.

Hayes-Nikas described his creative process as creating space, then slowly removing the space. He also leaves white spots on his canvas on purpose so that there is a larger focus on the art he’s trying to show us. When Hayes-Nikas’s art is lined up in his intended order the viewer can observe how space moves around within each work. Space also gives art viewers time to think and interpret their thoughts. It can represent a moment in time where people are allowed to fully understand what they’re feeling and reflect on it.

To draw meaning from his art one has to dive deep into their own emotions and try to feel what’s happening in the art. For example, in Hayes-Nikas's black and white series titled The Return, the works contain rectangular shapes that seem to represent windows. What could the windows in his art symbolize? Is Hayes-Nikas challenging us to look through his art into something deeper or is he inferring that someone is looking at us? Hayes-Nikas uses charcoal, graphite, and even magic markers to create a soft yet stern black that is immediately eye-catching. The lines can express a struggle that can be bubbling within oneself. The strong lines and softer scribbles create a jarring effect. His art could be encouraging people to look into the window of their soul and gaze at their internal struggle and true feelings.

In Hayes-Nikas’s color-based series Structure and Matrix, he employs the use of brightness and color, resulting in more vibrant pieces. These drawings, however, also contain harsh mark-making. Although he delivers bright pieces, the blunt lines could be indicative of another struggle between being bold and assertive and being peaceful and warm. Some of his pieces, specifically a piece that contains blue and yellow markings, can be seen as a landscape. He uses dry pastels and paper to create an image that makes one feel as if they were on a warm beach or shivering on a mountain, proving that a little color can go a long way.

How do the titles of his series create meaning? Titles provide a foreshadowing of what is about to be shown, providing the viewer with an initial perspective before the search for their own deeper meaning. What does the title The Return mean? Maybe the return represents coming back to reality after taking a long look at one’s emotions. What does the title Structure and Matrix mean? It could represent a reminder to return to the basics, a starting point from which to create space, a foundation that will eventually truly emphasize the simplicity behind art. Additionally, it could also represent how color is the backbone or structure of a particular meaning a piece of art is trying to convey.

In one of our follow-up email correspondences, Hayes-Nikas told me that one of his friends described his art as “getting a lot of mileage out of a little vocabulary.” This infers that Hayes-Nikas's work requires a second and third look in order to create meaning and fully understand the message he’s trying to convey. Hayes-Nikas delivers his message through little imagery, but the borders and the spaces within create an expansive depth, and, through it, an emotional experience individual for each viewer.

images (top to bottom):

34/43, graphite and ink, from the series The Return, 2015-2017

25/43, graphite and ink, from the series The Return, 2015-2017

18/43, dry pastel, enamel, graphite, ink, and wax pastels, from the series Structure and Matrix, 2019-2021

19/43, dry pastel, enamel, graphite, ink, and wax pastels, from the series Structure and Matrix, 2019-2021

Shadow and Gravity in Wood Sculpture

by Victoria Wright

Gregory Barry is an Ashburnham-based artist whose work lies at the crossroads of drawing, sculpture, and installation. Barry’s sculpture is a three-dimensional experience, based on his belief in the simple and fundamental transactions between people and objects.This means that his sculptures are not only abstractions or decorations but should be understood as a commentary on contemporary societal values. His objects incorporate discarded and natural materials like aluminum wire, plywood, and rocks into sculptures that serve to emphasize their past life. As Barry puts it: “Material history becomes significant in this work because it brings voice, conversation, awareness, and curiosity to the material’s previous existence.” Barry works to create unity between people and their natural environment by allowing them to connect through materials, space, light, and shadow.

Barry's works are characterized by questioning how humans interact with nature. Emphasizing the creative process to the same extent as the work, Barry identifies with the river, with the breath, and with essential movement and life. He reveals the incessant movement at the heart of the natural cycle which, over time, alters beings and things, and is driven by the desire to understand nature in its evolution and decline. The fundamental ideas of his approach are growth, change, transformation, and temporality. He comes out of the condition of humanity to understand the condition of nature itself. The sculpture Open Forms, for example, is a collection of distinctly colored pieces of wood, screwed together to create contrasting shapes, which he then wraps around a tree trunk. This sculpture reflects the differentiation between humans and nature while still highlighting the connection of one to the other.

In his sculpture Plates, Barry uses discarded wood from construction sites to create intricate patterns and shapes. An emphasis on recycling and bettering the earth is clear in this sculpture as it seemingly depicts two tectonic plates. Metaphorically, it is a commentary on climate change and the impact of humans on the ecology of our planet. Barry’s sculptures are intense with meaning, but have organic shapes and are often light in appearance. This playfulness is contradicted by the dark commentary of the work.

The strategic use of wood in Barry’s art plays with shadows and light, appealing to the need for sunlight in all natural beings. It reconnects these treated woods to their natural roots. The sculpture Ply is a wall installation that intentionally plays with shadow and light. The small pieces of plywood broken and joined together creates a wavy shape in relief against the wall. The piece is intended to give a sense of movement and new life to the old materials, producing a second, third, and even fourth life of matter.

Barry does not interfere with the material, accepting anything that can alter the work. He finds that the history, the age, and the traces of the human hand add character and individuality to all of his works. These individual aspects of each work are inseparable from his creation, allowing for history to be incorporated in his sculptures. Learning and understanding through touch and making is a simple but deeply important element in his work. His enthusiasm and wonder are expressed through the realization of each sculpture.

With visual links to minimalism and environmental art, Barry creates an interaction between sculpture and space. The sculptures are presented in the same environment as that of the spectator, creating an intersection across human life, nature, and art. He creates experiences that are not only visual but engage all the human senses. The Writhe sculpture is an organic shape that gives us the feeling that the sculpture is in motion. It is as if the sculpture has arms that extend out and take the space and the viewer’s attention. The sculpture, therefore, refuses to simply sit in space: it inhabits it.

The works have been designed for a viewer to walk alongside them, directly interacting with their environment and placement. The sculptures are not static. Rather, they appear to be in motion. If we look at them from different angles, our perception also appears to be in motion. The beauty of his work is its openness—each viewer brings their own interpretation of the work, an interpretation that is generated by their own memories.

images (top to bottom):

OPEN FORMS, pine, fir, and spruce wood remnants, 2020

PLATES, pine, fir, and spruce wood remnants, 2020

PLY, discarded/weathered plywood, 2018

WRITHE, discarded wood, 2019

STRATUM, discarded/weathered plywood, 2018

WALKERS, repurposed wood, 2019

Siddarth Choudhary: The Outside and the Other

by Zachery Thompson

What separates us from one another? Siddharth Choudhary explores the isolating effects of our current political climate through the lens of immigration and personal othering. Born in Mumbai, India, Choudhary came to Boston by way of Hong Kong and Paris. While in Hong Kong, he discovered the artistic potential of digital art. His style is composed of quick marks and strokes made with a stylus on a screen. His pieces are eventually printed on a canvas, and they seem as if they were thickly painted, yet he achieves these spectacular effects entirely with digital software. Choudhary’s most recent series, Too Much Color, has been a response not only to critics but also to the quarantine and the protests for racial justice that continue across the country.

Digital art is seen by many as separate from the fine arts canon. Despite this prejudice, Choudhary is proud of his medium. He has found that it allows him to work quickly and expressively, where he finds traditional mediums confining. At the same time, he goes against the common perception that digital is smooth and clean, creating quick gestural movements and almost doodle-like compositions. To show his pride in his medium, Choudhary places his subjects in a white void, the default of most digital software. This also allows the viewer to devote their attention exclusively to the figures of his pieces.

Self Portrait as an Alien is an evocative piece. It depicts Choudhary as a monster with three drooping eyes, teeth bursting out from his jaw at odd angles, and a propeller sprouting from his head. The colors are vibrant and unnatural. His hair is a slimy turquoise, and red lines wriggle across his face. The only color he does not change in this work is his skin, which remains warm and brown. He stares out at the audience, three eyes unblinking, with little movement as if this were a photo.

Metamorphosis explores the theme of othering in America through the use of the most recognizable symbol of the country. It depicts a stylized American flag, although the blue field where the stars reside has been painted a warm brown. It is pushed out of alignment with the stripes, and seems to be trying to make its way back into the iconic configuration. The orderly rows of red and white stripes, on the other hand, are attempting to crowd out the stars, but are slowly being pushed back by the large scrawled stars and fleshy brown. Choudhary is also building every color in the piece up from black, leaving the white and red just translucent enough that they become less saturated and more muted.

Parkour has a more jovial, joking tone to it, but there are hints of worry and unease just beneath the surface. It depicts Choudhary jumping through the city as if shot from a fisheye lens; the flat, grey buildings surround him at odd angles, almost like a fence. This unusual perspective gives the painting a feeling of some sort of ad or extreme sports video. He seems to grin as he propels himself through the scene, hands pushing off a ledge, legs extended with his vibrant shoes leading the way. Strands of blue dance atop his head, tossed by wind or momentum. He looks at the viewer with a worried smile because he sees this piece as “a fantastical scenario, where I am being chased by ICE. I eventually disappear into the crowd forever.”

These works expose the breadth of how Choudhary sees otherness. Works such as Parkour and Self-Portrait as an Alien demonstrate the very personal way in which he internalizes otherness, whereas Metamorphosis expresses a more analytical, symbolic approach. These pieces offer a look into how he feels about otherness and how it has impacted him throughout his life. How does it affect you?

images (top to bottom) :

Self-portrait as an Alien, archival pigment print on canvas of computer drawing at 300 ppi, 2020

Metamorphosis, archival pigment print on canvas of computer drawing at 300 ppi, 2019

Parkour, archival pigment print on canvas of computer drawing at 300 ppi, 2020

Yours Forever, archival pigment print on canvas of computer drawing at 300 ppi, 2020

Botany as Art: In Close Detail

by Sam Mescon

Whether on an apartment windowsill, between city sidewalk cracks, or on a dirt road in rural backcountry, plant life surrounds us. Yet how often do we stop to take a close look at its many mysteries? In Bill Scully’s recent photography series Microbotanicals, he gives us the opportunity to overcome the phenomenon he calls “plant blindness” and explore the microscopic beauties found in nature. While Scully shoots entirely with a digital camera, he modifies his camera to give his photos a distinctive sense of abstraction. In his early body of work, The Unseen Light, Scully used an infrared camera with long exposure techniques to render photographs of common marsh plants as a surrealist black and white abstraction. In his newest series Microbotanicals, Scully challenges our visual confidence by presenting images of ordinary plants that appear hyper-realistic, but in reality are deceivingly abstract in form, function, and truth.

As the viewer examines the works of art in Microbotanicals, they see a single, large, organic shape comprised of what appears to be an infinite number of small cells in various vibrant colors and shapes. In fact, what they’re seeing is a highly constructed, composite image. Scully renders these images of plant specimens through an extremely laborious and technical process. Using a microscope as a lens, the magnified image shines directly onto his camera’s sensor. However, only a partial view of the plant specimen can be captured at one time; he creates a final image that encompasses the entire slide by stitching together smaller sections using a software program. Moreover, because of the microscope’s extremely narrow focusing capability, Scully must capture multiple photographs of each section, incrementally changing the focus each time. Another piece of software then stitches together the in-focus areas of these identically composed photographs, to create a final, perfectly sharp, image for that section. The resulting work, a composite from hundreds of photographs, displays an undeniably beautiful yet idealized version of these specimens, bringing into question how truthful these images really are. If everything Scully photographs is there, but not there at the same time, is what we are seeing an accurate representation of a biological specimen?

The inherent convergence of art and science throughout this work connects it to the history of botanical illustrations, such as the revolutionary lithographs of German scientist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). His illustrations of natural design educated thousands on the biological construction of different plants and animals. While Scully does not intend for his work to be educational like Haeckel’s, for most of us, these images allow us to analyze these specimens from a new perspective, thus redefining our appreciation for botany in everyday life. Instead of being about education and accuracy, they are simply about finding beauty and letting go of needing to be truthful.

In Microbotanicals, Scully includes a number of images of the cross-sections of various edible plants such as apples, squash, and asparagus along with sections of common tree branches and grass. When slides of these specimens are manufactured for microscopic viewing, they are injected with colorful dyes that allow for a clear illustration of the different cellular structures. The mesmerizing beauty of the naturally occurring geometric shapes and repeating patterns in these images largely dismisses any concern we have about them being scientifically accurate. In Syringa vulgaris, a longitudinal section of a single lilac floret reveals the sensual anthropomorphic qualities that repeat in nature. The recognizable outlines of flower petals retain a light shade of turquoise that wonderfully complements the inner red ovaries of the plant. Further, in Trifolium pratense, commonly called red clover, single-celled red fragments orbit the image. The juxtaposition of light green smaller cells in the center and dark green larger cells that bulge outward allows the viewer to feel the three-dimensional quality of these cross-sections that repeat throughout the series. Scully’s immaculately calibrated images encourage us to read dynamic relationships of form and composition, to find intriguing cellular patterns and beauty far beyond the reach of the human eye.

Since Scully started photographing thirteen years ago, he has methodically produced works of nature, each time sharing a unique interpretation of how natural beauty can be observed. Microbotanicals adds a level of philosophical complexity by asking us to question the relevance of truth and accuracy in his work. If Scully succeeds at presenting unseen beauty in nature, even through scientific means, does it really matter how he gets there?

images (top to bottom) :

'Syringa vulgaris,' Floret (longitudinal section), common name: Lilac, magnification: 16X, composite of 406 images, from the series "Microbotanicals"

'Trifolium pratense,' Stem (cross section), common name: Red Clover, magnification: 32X, composite of 406 images, from the series "Microbotanicals"

'Tilia americana,' Pistil (cross section), common name: Basswood/Linden, magnification: 64X, composite of 430 images, from the series "Microbotanicals"

'Ammophila,' Leaf (cross section), common name: Beach Grass, magnification: 32X, composite of 469 images, from the series "Microbotanicals"

Inside, Outside / Fleshy, Crystalline

by Kira Houston

Artist Katie Dye might say that other sculptural mediums have “transparency issues.” For Dye, the ethereal, color-changing properties of glass make it a joy to work with and look at. Her puzzling glass objects draw us in with their vitality. Take Tabidus: the milky orange interior and dripping arteries make this glass heart look alive, as if it might begin to pulse in our peripheral vision. Dye draws from the human body, which she freezes mid-motion and mid-transformation. She blurs the lines between interiors and exteriors, excavating internal organs while encasing extremities. Her enigmatic creations unsettle our sense of inertia, convincing us for a moment that the inside, the outside, the fleshy, and the crystalline might all intermingle.

Dye has always considered herself a maker, recalling fondly the three-dimensional mud sculptures she built as a child. She still uses a stool in her studio gifted to her by an influential high school art teacher. Dye studied studio process at MassArt where she met and fell in love with glass. We might be familiar with the aesthetics of blown glass, a sculptural process Dye described as something like “dancing.” Dye, however, prefers the lesser-known process of kiln casting. She uses a method called “lost wax” to tame the glass in the kiln. This ancient form of casting has evolved to employ a modern plaster recipe containing silica. An artist working in this method first creates a wax model of the intended sculpture, encases this model in plaster, then melts the wax, leaving a hollow mold. Dye produces her glass objects through this mold-making process, letting the technicalities of craft guide her to new shapes and forms.

While Tabidus was cast from an anatomical model (no dissection required), Dye also engages in a type of indirect self-portraiture by using her own body to create molds. She uses a material called alginate to safely make casts of her limbs. In her series Transpositions, she encases negative-space imprints of her own hands and feet in natural glass artifacts. In Transposition 6, for example, the inverted texture of the artist’s fingers becomes encased in a cocoon of crystal blue. The surrounding glass object appears spontaneous, but at the right angle, light illuminates the fossilized fingers. To ensure this essential illumination, Dye usually builds her own lighted pedestals to display her works. Viewers must interact with the glass’s transparent properties to piece together the visual puzzle pieces. Interiors and exteriors harmonize to evoke a sense of suspended motion. Dye’s glass freezes the body in action, but it also embodies action. In her dynamic composition Stretch, the hands seem like they might wiggle their digits and pull the red string at any moment. Bodily images, dissociated from their limbs, prompt a consideration of the contradiction between the glass’s inert reality and seeming vitality. The aura of delicate suspended motion which Dye cultivates both fascinates and mystifies our roaming eyes.

This interplay between vitality and stasis, or life and death, is key to reading Dye’s work. Dye follows in a long tradition of sculpting the human body, and as early as 900 BCE when Olmec artists created one of the first sculptures of the human heart referenced from a human sacrifice, bodily sculpture has associated itself with death. The ancient Romans and various subsequent cultures created death masks by taking imprints of the deceased’s faces. Due to a phenomenon known as the “hollow face illusion,” a backward-facing mask appears forward-facing to the human eye even despite contrary visual cues. The Romans used this illusion to devise hollow death masks which seemed to shift between convex and concave positioning, convincing viewers they had seen a ghost. Today, Dye utilizes the active properties of glass to produce this same shifting vitality. Her casts seem to defy death, appearing moments from reanimation even when the viewer knows the material is inert.

Through their shifting, ethereal qualities, Dye’s sculptures transform our traditional ways of viewing the world. They capture a sense of fragile preservation, but also an impetus to motion. They ask us to investigate multiple levels of texture, finding hidden forms inside the glass. They appropriate familiar bodily images to produce uncanny metamorphoses. Like the Roman death masks which floated spectrally in candle-lit tombs, Dye’s sculptures seem to stretch, grab, transfigure, and glow. Her playful creations let us see past dichotomies—between the inside and outside, the fleshy and crystalline, the living and dead, the vital and inert—to imagine how our own preconceived incongruities might meld and reconfigure through art.

images (top to bottom) :

Tabidus, cast glass, 3" x 5" x 2.5"

Transforo, cast glass, 14" x 3.5" x 7"

Stretch, cast glass and string, 12" x 6" x 4"

Somnus, cast glass and pigment, 5" x 7" x 2.5"

Cruciatus, cast glass, 7" x 3.5" x 8"

Robb Sandagata: The Humanity of the Grotesque

by Mia Swartz

A cast of brightly colored human-esque characters floods the walls of Robb Sandagata’s studio apartment. At first glance, it is tempting to categorize these creatures as horrific monsters, with their melting neon skin, animalistic features, and hollow eyes. What Sandagata is truly depicting, however, are human beings living with untrustworthy minds and bodies, and these monstrous paintings are the visual vocabulary that he uses to do so. He explains, “I’m using these techniques and strategies of grotesque art to tell unclear stories about people.” Through his striking color palette, detailed mark-making, and biomorphic figures, Sandagata provides physical, mental, and societal manifestations of the grotesque beings inside all of us.

Sandagata began creating his own comics at the age of six, but he eventually became bored with the predictable repetition of characters and the lionization of superheroes typical of the comic genre: he was far more intrigued by the villains. These early inspirations, along with his study of sculpture at Sarah Lawrence College, have heavily influenced the texture and style of his work today. He paints with acrylic, accidentally made “oops paint,” and paint markers on wood panels that he has either found or built himself. The former art teacher currently resides in an artist loft in Lowell and works at Davis Publications in Worcester.

Despite his contemporary comic style, Sandagata’s influences can be traced as far back as the late 15th century with the notably grotesque Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s uniquely strange characters earned him his very own adjective, “Boschian,” which often describes the macabre or bizarre stuff of nightmares. While Sandagata’s disfigured depictions of humanity focus primarily on modern horrors, the earlier artist’s gruesome landscapes remind us that such frightening images have always existed in the imagination.

Throughout Sandagata’s work there are numerous depictions of the physically grotesque aspects of humankind. These can be seen in his current work in progress, Shitmoji, whose title is a clever play on words combining Bitmoji, the popular application that allows you to create personalized avatars, with a rhyming expletive. The title is written in the bold style of comics and punk show flyers, and there is a striking visual tension between the bright cyan block letters and the complementary coral plane from which they emerge. Similarly, a thematic tension exists between the playful and the horrific aspects within the work. The glowing palette has been built up from a foundation layer of black, so that the viewer digests in a more literal sense an uncovering of darkness hidden beneath a charming outer layer, much like the realities of living in a pandemic hidden behind a Bitmoji of oneself on a Zoom screen. The central figure is the artist’s own Bitmoji, which is in the process of tearing itself apart. To Sandagata, these saccharine virtual clones with which we have begun to replace ourselves are horrifying, misleadingly cutesy representations of our existence in a pandemic-infected, technology-dependent world. In other works, such as Hetero Skeleton, the physical monstrosity of the human body is not covered up; rather, it is graphically exposed. Intricate lines and vivid color make it difficult to look away from the quasi-three-dimensional entrails, while the pitch-black darkness of the figure’s eyes ominously dominates the canvas and suggests a wickedness within.

Aside from the physical horrors of humanity, Sandagata depicts afflictions that cannot be seen, such as the societal and mental afflictions of toxic masculinity and substance abuse. Reminiscent of the vulgar comics of artist R. Crumb, Sandagata’s Vagenda of Manocide presents a violent illustration of beer and hot pocket touting manly men, duck-billed and mohawked, conjoined at the head of a third older man. Despite their efforts to emerge strong and unscathed, the men are engulfed in the effeminate hot pink flames of their unquenchable thirst for manhood. As such, they too fall victim to the nefarious effects of the machismo that they perpetuate. In Pain Management, another grotesque personal and societal ill unfolds in a psychedelic, addiction rampant scene. The neon pink painkiller not only affects each individual on a personal level as it seeps out of their eyes and other parts of their bodies, but also pollutes the air around them, making the issue a societal concern.

Among these works, a theme of underlying dark, monstrous human truths presented through misleading fluorescent lively color prevails. The monsters are not outside of us, but within us. What are you hiding?

images (top to bottom) :

Shitmoji, acrylic on board, 2020

Hetero Skeleton, acrylic on found board, 2019

Vagenda of Manocide (Diptych), acrylic on board, 2016

Ubermensch (I Have the Best Scientists), acrylic on found board, 2018

Reunion Tour, acrylic on board, 2019

The Lineage of Womanhood

by Jori Dudzikowski

Scarlett Hoey’s collection of photographs unites themes of womanhood, domesticity, and personal identity. Through portraiture we are introduced to the powerful women of her family, the artist herself, and the spaces these women occupy. We are invited to observe quiet moments behind closed doors, to contemplate the historic responsibility and pressure women have faced, and reflect on our personal experiences as Hoey passes the torch and pays homage to long line of artistic female predecessors. Hoey’s body of work ranges from select pieces from her series “Australiana,” taken in 2019, to a few more recent works from 2020. Through portraiture that suggests the narratives of her family’s generations, her work transforms the weight of womanhood.

Though her practice is analog photography, Hoey’s process begins with research. Whether it be cemetery ambling, reading, or studying paintings in museums, she is an artist inconstant conversation with the past. Her photographic techniques and tools connect her to the history that inspires her. For example, Hoey has the unique ability to paint with film: through dramatic lighting, framing, temperature adjustments, and subject staging, she is able to manipulate an environment to become a suspended and expressive moment in time. Although her pieces are shown digitally in this exhibition, the physical scale and framing she utilizes in a real-world gallery harkens back to the elaborate and grand presentation of Baroque painting. Her pieces are large enough to confront the viewer and assist them in entering into the worlds she creates.

Hoey’s two portraits titled Gran In the Brew Shop and Gran on the Verandah depict her grandmother proudly working in domestic settings in Australia. Propped with a broom and hanging laundry to dry, these two pieces harken back tradition while also reclaiming these laborious moments as precious and personal. From Gran’s bold floral print shirts we get a sense of her personality and the pride she takes in her appearance as she is working. Her warm smile contrasts the cool tones and mysterious landscape of the brew shop. Compositionally, Gran is setback in the space and appears smaller than her task at hand. Hoey’s use of heavy shadows is painterly and creates an atmosphere of isolation and loneliness. While she has a sense of dignity as she works, there is also a heavy weight within these pieces, stressing her responsibilities within these environments. These are unthanked tasks, unglamorous, but necessary. Both of these images comment on how the hard work of women can be forgotten or taken for granted. By photographing these instances it forces us to look within our own lives and appreciate what the women in our homes do for us, even if it’s behind closed doors and has been historically expected of them.

One of Hoey’s more recent pieces, Masked Pomona, continues the emotion of isolation. She uses the absence of color to evoke a sense of distance between the viewer and the subject, and across time. The blurred background channels a gap in reality; a once vibrant experience, of looking into the eyes of your mother, is turned achromatic and far away. The lack of color makes this experience of mother and child feel as though time is fleeting and that it could exist somewhere in the past. This photograph offers a new perspective on modern portraiture during the pandemic. It challenges the audience to read emotion and body language through eyes alone, and channels the difficulty of engaging with a close-up portrait when we are urged to keep our distance from strangers. This image also explores a feeling of longing we have now all experienced—of being close to your loved ones but not close enough to touch them. A sort of duality is present in her mother’s eyes: a feeling of joy, a squinted eye of what could perhaps be a smile underneath her mask, and a sense of uncertainty. This portrait helps capture the history of our unprecedented times, our new familial interactions, and the bittersweetness that follows them.

Scarlett Hoey’s work expresses feminine power not through a stereotypical lens. There is a sense of power we get from hardship, from vulnerability, from fear. There is a strength to being alone, to dwelling in and adorning our spaces, from the way we dress, to the way we work, to the decisions we are faced with: this collection is a representation of humanity.

images (top to bottom) :

Gran in the Brew Shop, digital inkjet print, 2019

Gran on the Verandah, digital inkjet print, 2014

Masked Pomona, digital inkjet print, 2020

Vote, digital inkjet print, 2020

A Consumer's Reflection

by Anna-Li St. Martin

Where does inspiration come from? For Sam Aman, inspiration comes from everyday objects. Every product we purchase comes from someone’s dedicated time and effort making life easier or entertaining. Through wide-ranging subject matter and materials, this Framingham-based artist’s work calls on us to look at ourselves and our participation in consumer culture. We take product availability for granted and never question the effects it has on others. Aman’s intriguing, diverse work critiques our sense of complacency about commercialism by exposing the ideologies of consumerism, suggesting audiences rethink how their roles and identities are shaped by consumer culture.

Aman’s graphic style is rooted in reading comic books and playing video games in his youth. He is drawn to subjects (both people and objects) that represent a kind of commercial meaning to society. He usually makes several rough sketches before moving on to the final work. Assorted media are used individually or combined, including acrylic, oil, gouache paints, or digital programs. The various subjects and materials of this collection may make it difficult to identify a commonality between these works. A lot of Aman’s work contains aspects of his South Asian, Bangladeshi heritage; however, he does not let it define his work. In some of his pieces it is clear he was influenced by his heritage, while in others it is not as obvious. His work consists mainly of portraits, scenes of everyday life, and some urban landscapes. They are not, however, typical paintings. There are modifications to these traditional works, such as in Low Men, where the urban scene of people in a train car are transformed into alien-like creatures.

In Low Men, a young boy sits on a subway car surrounded by many adult-sized, alien-like figures, almost all identically dressed. Aman uses a clear graphic style throughout the piece, choosing bold outlines and flat washes of color. The bright, neon-like colors highlight the aliens’ figures and faces, almost like something from a comic book. The crowd of worker aliens suggests a professional class commuting to work every day to perform the same tasks over and over, similar to our own society. The only human figure, the boy, may be seeing his future as he matures and give sin to consumerism. People are expected to find a job after school and then have a family to provide for. The professional class is a symptom of mass production in consumerism. To provide for consumers, workers must spend long hours on the job to make life easier for others. This depiction exposes the victims of compliance to commercialism. Why do people willingly give into the commercial realm?

In Model Minority, Aman focuses on the perpetual Asian American stereotype, while also dressing the young female in a salwar kameez and bindi, paying homage to his Bangladeshi heritage. The rough, graphic checked boxes in the background assume a list of tasks fulfilled by the young, frustrated woman. The harsh, graphic, neon colors suggest an artificial aspect over this person. The form of her body and frustrated look in her eyes indicate something weighing on her. A mass production of expectations is put on Asian Americans at a young age. Academic achievements and professional success are some of the characteristics of a model minority. These expectations are a part of the commercial realm that controls our identities, and our complacency in taking on these goals compels us to question our roles and identities in consumerism. How are people supposed to live up to these expectations?

This collection of works expose the multiple ideologies that connect identity and consumer culture. The commercial realm sets up expectations about our identities that we willingly follow as consumers. Not only does Aman’s work show us an overview of his interests, but his use of commercial art toys with our perceptions of consumer culture. Aman asks us to engage in self-critical thought regarding our identity and roles as consumers today. Identity is an important theme to recognize in each of these paintings because our identities are constructed by our ideologies and expectations. They are shaped and controlled by society. By exposing our roles in consumerism, we question whether the notion of commercialism is worth our time and effort. How do we recognize our consumption to avoid letting it shape us?

images (from top to bottom) :

Low Men, digital, 2019

Model Minority, digital, 2020

Math, mixed media, 2013

Saddle, acrylic on canvas board, 12” x 9”, 2020

Taka, oil on canvas, 12” x 9”, 2018

Where do we go from here?

Lynn Nafey and the Centrality of Time

by Isabella Hillebrand

Time—hours, days, weeks, months—can be just as integral as any material or technique when making art. For Lynn Nafey (b. 1961), who describes herself as “always making art,” time is an essential element in the production of work. Her artistic evolution is diverse in style and form, and, after a more commercially-oriented career, she is now focused on the creation of art for herself. By exploring new themes, Nafey broaches topics of self-discovery, personal experience, and issues of gender and politics through dreamy images of life-like beings, the use of veiled symbols, and constructions of striking depth.

Nafey works with sculpture, caricature, and even puppetry to forge her mixed-media assemblages. By using Dura-lar, a polyester film that seamlessly blends her own hand work and digital creations, Nafey creates art that seems to feed onto itself, yielding hazy compositions of color, uncertain depth, and clouded space. She begins with her surface, a wooden plank, and then layers the fragments of the piece together: paper, pigment transfers, gouache, and so much more. Nafey pulls some layers to the foreground while pushing some behind the waxy Dura-lar, burying shapes and brush marks, assembling the building blocks of her final configuration. She interposes line drawings and symbols, often created digitally, throughout the composition. The development of her pieces is thus an endless play wherein wonder and frenzy rev the engine; then her observant mind hits the brakes, letting the work evolve by slowing down and giving it room to grow on its own. By taking her time, Nafey draws, erases, and works the surface, creating a fluctuating flow in her three-dimensional collage.

Nafey’s Blue Lies (2020) and You Play the Girl (2019) showcase the role of time in her process. The star of Blue Lies is the menacing figure looming in the foreground; baring his teeth, he shows himself off to the viewer, arms wide open. To Nafey, the character was originally a showman—a puppet with a large ego, described by her as possessing a “look at me” attitude. The piece’s aging granted the figure a likeness to Donald Trump, in its aura and attributes. The artist fits him with bright orange hair and a swirling background of declaratives, including “I play to people’s fantasies,” and “Nobody’s ever been more successful than me,” direct quotes by Trump. With this representation of Trump in Blue Lies, Nafey abstractly conceptualizes the current political climate: The blue, which typically exhibits calm but in this case takes on a sinister air, erupts from the pompous figure’s body and consumes the hopeful yellow tones.

You Play the Girl, a piece created over two years, depicts Nafey’s long-observed considerations around femininity. The artist pushes a doll-like figure wearing a tutu and ballet slippers to the background. Nafey tucks other elements into the assorted layers of the piece: Xs and Os, and her mother’s old to-do list, featuring tasks such as “clean bathroom” and “wash clothes.” No one element becomes explicit in the piece, but splotches of color, pattern, and line form together, evoking themes of women’s experiences and gender performance—motifs Nafey continues to interrogate while time as a medium grants her new perspective. This muddiness indicates the nature of Nafey’s own thoughts, feelings, and emotions as she makes sense of these developing points of view.

The fusion of abstraction and realism in Nafey’s work puts it in conversation with the work of Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879–1940) and American artist Romare Bearden (1911–88), modernists who experimented with cubism, surrealism, and collage. What Nafey describes as the“pure poetry” of Klee’s work propagates playful and surprising elements in her own pieces: the collision of discernable figures or faces, and ambiguous shape and line. Collage brings an apparent spontaneity to her works, reminiscent of Bearden’s colorful mosaic-like productions. By coalescing digital work and hand pieces in her art, Nafey reflects the objective of collage: transforming each element into a complete constellation of meaning.

Nafey’s work holds an opaqueness of meaning and form, which she challenges her audience to observe and dissect. Nafey’s own sense of self—her memories, emotions, and perceptions—come into focus for the viewer as they did when Nafey consults the personal in her creation. If the viewer considers the works over time, much like Nafey did in creating them, the viewer’s reward is to comprehend the intricate and purposeful messaging with which she imbues her playful color, depth, and line.

images (from top to bottom) :

Blue Lies, mixed media (Duralar, plexiglass, paper on woodpanel, ink, color pencil, pigment transfer, and brass), 8.875 x 10.875’’, 2020

You Play The Girl, mixed media (Duralar, plexiglass, paper on wood panel, pigment transfers, ink, gouache, acrylic paint, color pencil, graphite and paper), 13 x 16.625’’, 2019

Teacher’s Pet, mixed media (Duralar, plexiglass, paper on wood panel, ink, acrylic paint, color pencil, pigment transfers, and graphite), 10.375 x 8.75’’, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?, mixed media (Duralar, plexiglass, paper on wood panel, pigment transfers, ink, gouache, color pencil, and paper), 12.25 x 16.125’’, 2017

The Distorted Worlds of John Wesley Small

by Finn O'Driscoll

John Wesley Small’s work is immediately compelling: his portraits and urban landscapes of Worcester and other areas of Central Massachusetts invite us into worlds characterized by distortion and vivid colors. His works are tinted with a sense of uneasiness, yet there is a feeling of familiarity in this unease. Small’s work forces the viewer to reckon with their own identity, particularly in unfamiliar and uncanny settings. At their core, Small’s vibrant alternative realities explore the darker undertones of discomfort and dissociation in our everyday lives.

In his recent work, Small utilizes an elaborate method for producing his paintings. Although his work is wildly imaginative, the majority of visuals in Small’s paintings are produced through a layered process of digital photography techniques. Typically, with a rough concept in mind, Small begins his creative process by experimenting with the settings on his digital camera. By using a low ISO and high aperture setting, Small is forced to use a slow shutter speed (a technique that resembles the principles of long exposure photography). Many of the photographs produced during the initial stages of his creative process are defined by a considerable amount of blur, as seen in Felt Like an Alien. After an extensive revision and elimination process, Small then enters a phase of in-camera post-production where he heavily manipulates the hue and saturation of the colors, ultimately producing his unique acidic color palette. When he is satisfied with a final digital image, Small sketches the image onto canvas using charcoal and brings it to life with acrylic and oil paint.

Small draws inspiration from Francis Bacon (1909-1992) for his portraits. Bacon, an Irish-born English painter, is known for his raw, almost abstract depictions of faces and human figures. Bacon’s work is inherently grim. Just as Bacon’s renditions of the grotesque evoke a feeling of anxiety, so Small’s work similarly elicits a sense of uneasiness. Both Bacon and Small force the viewer to confront the artist’s explorations of identity in alternative realms, and in doing so, compel the viewer into their own state of introspection. When one looks at Double Life, for example, one is immediately drawn to the hollow human figure in the painting. The figure’s pale, though contrasty, tones give it an unnaturalistic quality. Furthermore, Small’s diagonal stretching of the head and distortion of facial features present the viewer with an image resembling a spirit leaving the body. The subject’s physical and ultimately spiritual transformation not only generates a sense of uneasiness, but also curiosity about one’s own identity. The viewer is presented with a similar set of aesthetic themes in Untitled and All Day Long. Despite the figures appearing less abstract, the subjects nevertheless seemingly transcend reality whilst demonstrating multiple egos.

Small continues this motif of discomfort in his urban landscapes of central Massachusetts. In Small’s alternative worlds, mundane scenarios of everyday life become intimate, yet uncomfortable spaces. In Not to be Modified, the perspective and scale of the painting makes it feel as though we, the viewers, are on the other side of the street. When looking at the image, we are immediately teleported into the scene. And just like the ghost-like figure in the painting, we too find ourselves walking directly toward the harsh light coming down the street. Ultimately, Small creates the perception that we are walking into the unknown. Despite the general feeling of apprehension this produces, there is something oddly exciting about this image—the potential point of connection between the subject in the painting and the viewer. In this sense, our familiarity with the everyday scene helps establish another point of connection between the viewer and the subject in Small’s work.

John Wesley Small’s recent body of work offers a glimpse into unusual hypothetical worlds. Marked by heavy visual distortions and an acidic palette that unifies the series as a whole, Small’s paintings strike the viewer at their core. Beyond their alluring visuals, Small’s paintings also consistently reference themes of uneasiness and belonging. Small’s work is so fascinating because these themes, to some degree, relate to us all. In this sense, Small challenges us all to explore our own alternative realities riddled with mixed sentiment and wild aesthetics.

images (top to bottom) :

Double Life, oil on stretched canvas, 30” x 24”, 2020

Not to be Modified, oil and acrylic on stretched canvas, 22” x 28”, 2015

Untitled, oil on canvas, 20" x 16", 2020

Felt Like an Alien, oil and acrylic paint on stretched canvas, 16” x 20”, 2014

All Day Long, oil and acrylic on stretched canvas, 40” x 30”, 2018

Stay Cool, oil and acrylic on stretched canvas, 30” x 24”, 2017