"Studio Visits": Paintings by Seth Ruggles Hiler - A Q&A About Faces, Portraiture and Francis Bacon

posted Jun 19, 2013, 3:17 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Jun 19, 2013, 3:44 PM ]

This is a re-posting of a Q&A that was previously conducted by Philip F. Clark with the artist Seth Ruggles Hiler, a longtime friend of mine whose most recent collection of paintings called “Studio Visits” is currently on display at the DUO Multicultural Arts Center in New York City.

“Studio Visits” is a series of portraits utilizing amateur models in and around Orange, NJ, where Hiler maintains an art studio.

Raised in Boonton, NJ, Hiler now lives in Montclair, NJ with his husband Nicolas. “Studio Visits” is his sixth solo show and runs through July 12.

Why is the face such a powerful subject for you? What is it that portraiture provides for you as a painter, that your other subjects do not? 

Art in any form or style affirms our existence as humans. It can connect us to our own space when we realize the invented volume of objects created on a two dimensional surface. Art can also connect us to another space, taking us far away from our current reality when there is a negation of figuration through abstraction. Either way it subconsciously reminds us that we are here.

When the subject matter is the human face, our existence is not only confirmed but connection to another’s actuality is established (or at least the idea of another’s existence). The experience of seeing is heightened all that much more. My mentor in college, the painter Jerome Witkin said, “The human face is the most powerful image. You can’t make it up, you have to build it up.” That is what I have been trying to do since I met him.

In this time of mass celebrity, we have gone way beyond what in the 80s was referred to as “face time”—or actually spending time in front of someone rather than on our computers. The irony is that everyone on Facebook presents their “portrait” to others, as a stand-in for actually being with them. What do you think has created this culture? 

It’s just the time-line for human “progress” -- our need for speed and our need to connect to as much as possible. The great irony in this “social networking” and even “online dating” is that it is not about “face time”. It is not actually social. Someone can sit alone in a dark room forever, not connecting to anyone in person. It is like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but rather than light bulbs, there are computer screens lighting the secluded room.

Connection has become very removed, very sterile, very electronic and without vulnerability. Yet, people will share the most personal information and images because there is no fear of intimacy. It is virtual intimacy.

How do you choose your subjects for a portrait? What is some of the thinking process as you create the paintings or drawings? Do you work from life or photographs, from imagination or from a bit of all of these things? 

In previous series I chose my subjects from people I knew: friends, family, neighbors, significant others, fellow artists and people I came across in my daily travels. But since last September -- when I moved to my new studio in Orange, New Jersey, I began to seek out local subjects on apps on my phone and invited them to come for a photo session.

I experiment with poses, lighting and placement in the environment of my own space. The whole time, I talk to my subjects. This makes them feel more comfortable. It also helps me to learn more about them and connect with them on a deeper level.

Over time I go through all of the photos and choose which ones I think will work but it is a repeated process of revisiting them. I see which images I can connect to and which ones will translate into paint successfully. I am thinking about the medium, the size of the canvas and how to design the composition.

The plans often change several times before I actually begin a painting but I need that time to figure it out. Sometimes I will do drawing studies before I begin painting and sometimes I will do such drawings when I am in the middle of the painting process. Often I will do multiple paintings from the same initial visit by a subject.

Your faces are dynamic for the application of their color, certainly, which literally is “in your face”; however, they compel the viewer because of the expressions—the gestures of the face. These are not parlor portraits, and the intensity of the connection between painter and subject is tangible and potent. The heightened sense of eye contact is also what makes them so strong. Yet too, in some of the images, the subjects are not looking at you—but are completely with you. How do you achieve this? 

I think it is a matter of sitting with the sitter and then sitting with the painting itself. I have to capture the natural moment, one that creates a definite feeling that describes my experience of, and being with, the subject. My other option is to use my subject as an opportunity to explore an emotion I want to portray.

My studio is filled with several paintings that are in progress simultaneously. This allows me to take each painting through many layers and phases—the “building up” that Jerome was talking about. With each application of paint and the time spent with it (and without it) I can make a more dramatic or subtler feeling. It’s really just pushing paint around -- well, at least until it makes sense to me.

Your work makes me think of Francis Bacon’s portraits—not in imitation of them, but in the sense that the canvas is reverberating as you look at the faces. He captured the face in action; your portraits capture emotion in action. 

Bacon is one of my great inspirations. I have repeatedly pored over books of his images and read David Sylvester’s interviews with him and have seen a few of the pieces in London. But it all came together at his retrospective at the Met a few summers ago. To look at the whole body of work—his progression—and see hints of his processes was amazing, a true treat.

But the most powerful moment of the exhibit for me was coming across his small triptych of self-portraits. I said to my friend, “Well, now I know the definition of self-portrait.” It was a self-exploration on canvas and very generous of him to create. Was he doing it for himself, or for us? It doesn’t matter. We are going through that process with him. The action is not about blurs caused by open shutters. It is about moving into depths.

In response to my work capturing emotions in action, I think it is about connecting to what feels genuine. I try not to make things look staged. Only truth is timeless. And if I capture that natural emotion, it may seem to be in motion. It can move forward with us, even though the image is sustained in one “frame”.

The objective side of visual art is about relationships which your brain creates, using your eyes to connect similar things as well as notice differences. Through the design of an image artists are able to move the eye around the two-dimensional surface. We can’t give an exact road map. But we can offer options for linking or contrasting parts of the composition with elements such as line, shape, tone, weight, size, direction, color, etc. I have more power over these elements than a photographer has with film or pixels. And I have total control in my color decisions.

The color in my portraits may not seem truthful, but they strengthen my capacity in creating those visual relationships and also those emotional responses. The use of color is one of my tools in “capturing” emotions in action.

Where do you feel portraiture as a contemporary subject is today? What is being explored that is new, or revelatory? Who is our Mona Lisa? Our American Gothic? 

Everyone is. It’s all about self-portraiture today. Photography changed the way we viewed ourselves and it was the mode of portraiture and art in general for the twentieth century—still photography along with motion pictures. Yes, many artists expressed themselves through photographic self-portraiture, but right now, because of digital photography in conjunction with the internet, you don’t even have to be an artist to produce and “exhibit” your self-portrait.

Bacon worked a lot with photo booth picture strips to create his own self-portraits. Not only was it great and accessible reference material, I think it was a statement on the convention of the apparatus. Here was a machine in a public space capturing people in a very private and emotionally vulnerable way.

Usually the photo booths were used to photograph friends or lovers hamming it up for the camera, playing out their relationship in a campy fashion. Bacon did not use it to act out anything. He photographed himself in the absence of another. It was a serious self-examination, just like the resulting paintings.

Today we even have a program on our Mac computers called Photo Booth. It allows us to shoot unlimited “pics” of ourselves with instant gratification and with the power to edit and change anything about the image—from the facial expression to the tilt of our head to the lighting and color scheme. The function of the original photo booth is obsolete and we now have total control. And to make us even more powerful in this situation, with literally a few clicks of the mouse we can expose our self-portraits to the whole world.

How do you get to the “inside” of your subjects so that you can reveal this on the surface, with paint? What is needed to reach such an intimate exploration? 

If I tell you, I may have to kill you. (Laughter). All threats aside...what is needed is something that clicks in my brain, something that makes me know that it is worth doing. When drawing or painting from life, I can usually find something interesting in any subject. They are there, sitting in front of me and I am able to shift and get them from any angle I want. There is also energy flowing from the person that I can feel. I use it to understand them and also to define them in paint.

I am not always so lucky to have people sit for me in person. I actually do a lot of drawing from pictures I find online. I have a whole series of drawings called “Cropped”, based on the idea we were discussing earlier of this being the age of digital irony—distant intimacy.

So, when I seek out these virtual sitters, the picture itself has to make sense to me—the vulnerability, the joy, the macho facade—it has to speak to me. Now, I don’t know what is inside of these strangers, but I do know what they have revealed facially and through the image they have chosen to represent themselves. Their choices inform my understanding and lead to my interpretation of them as subjects.

How does the portrait lie? 

Portraits don’t lie. They interpret. When something is available by interpretation the possibilities are endless.

In your extended training at the New York Academy of Art, how did you develop as a portraitist and what were some of the foundations that you learned as a student there? How were these helpful to you, and how do they continue to be? 

Drawing. Drawing. Drawing. At the Academy we worked from life almost every day for two years. And when we were not working from life we were studying anatomy and figure structure—the human form “unconceptualized.” This gave me a great understanding of representational art, the science behind it and the history of approaches to it.

But it took me time to loosen up after leaving the Academy so that I could be free to be expressive while still applying the concepts I had learned.

What portrait has captured your attention and emotions most? What were the qualities that were present that made you have such a strong reaction? 

Lucien Freud’s Portrait of John Minton from 1952. It was commissioned by the painter John Minton after he had seen Freud’s small portrait of Francis Bacon earlier that year.

Five years later, Minton committed suicide. In the portrait, Freud captures this timeless sorrow. The man has a strong presence, but not of importance—almost of his present, eventual invisibility. 

I am working toward being able to capture such presence and emotion in my work.

For those of you in the New York City area, Seth's "Studio Visits" exhibition run through July 12 at the DUO Multicultural Center in the East Village. 


More of Seth's work can be seen on his website at www.sethruggleshiler.com


You can find Seth on Facebook by searching under "Seth Ruggles Hiler-Destino" or you can email him directly at sethruggleshiler@mac.com. 


Seth is also looking to boost his twitter presence, so you are encouraged to engage with him on his @sethhiler feed about art, life, his work.