There is a lot of superb art being made these days; this column shines light on a trio of gifted individuals.
Catherine Drabkin (b. 1959) has been making radiant pictures for more than 25 years, always respected but rarely in the limelight, at least not yet. She says that what Eudora Welty once wrote about being a writer can apply to painters, too: “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Born in New Haven, Drabkin earned her B.F.A. at Balti- more’s Maryland Institute College of Art and then an M.F.A. at Queens College in New York City, where she studied with Rose- marie Beck and Louis Finkelstein. Having taught since 1997 at the Delaware College of Art and Design, she is perfectly posi- tioned to carry on her quiet journey in Wilmington, a city with a rich artistic heritage now somewhat overlooked by the noisier cities nearby.
Primarily using oil and gouache, Drabkin makes pictures as “excuses to explore sensuous fields of color,” leaning toward a matte finish and unmatted edges that enhance the immediacy of the work as an object rather than just an image. Although one can glimpse the inspiration of Matisse and Bonnard here, Cézanne is also an important influence. He built his paintings “with shapes,” Drabkin explains. “The more he looked, the less he knew. In a way, his paintings are about that experience. He never tells us what anything is. Instead, his work is about the search. I think that one reason I paint ... is to find the way to make these shapes of space meaningful.”
Drabkin is best known for colorful interiors, especially of her studio, populated with what she calls “intimate objects,” things “familiar or overlooked, because even the ordinary has the capacity to astonish.” And there are luminous still lifes, and snapshots of herself at work. But Drabkin also looks beyond the studio, capturing the streets of her neighborhood, gardens, and landscapes as far afield as Florida and Europe. In all her work there is an evident fascination with light. Outdoors, she often seeks out water because she finds that its presence affects eve- rything around it, transforming the landscape, the sky, and the light itself.
“When I am at work,” Drabkin notes, “the places and things I observe seem to resonate with color vibrations: often quiet, sometimes brassy and dissonant. Dualities announce themselves: stillness against movement, the particular or detail against the atmos- pheric, subtle transitions against the excitement of a cut edge.” It is these intrinsic tensions that give Drabkin’s seemingly serene images such an emotional charge, a frisson reminding us that, as she asserts, “passionate intensity is possible in quiet places.”
Joe Fig (b. 1968) thinks a lot about how and why artists work as they do. Having earned both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, Fig is now based in Connecticut. In 2000, rightly convinced that studios reveal a great deal about the artists who work in them, he visited more than 50 prominent painters to watch them in action and engage them in conversation. Fig audiotaped these interviews for posterity and summa- rized what he learned in his book, Inside the Painter’s Studio, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009 and already in its sixth printing.
Working from the photographs, sketches, and diagrams he had made, Fig used wood, polymer clay, plastic, and paint to create “diorama por- traits” of studios — miniature, highly detailed sculptures of what he saw, including tiny figures of the artists themselves. Those captured in this way included not only individuals visited by Fig (e.g., Eric Fischl, Chuck Close), but also deceased masters whose studios had been recorded pre- viously, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. A sampling of these constructions is on view through March 25 in Small Worlds, an intriguing group show at Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art.
In 2010, Fig returned to his easel to begin painting a series of oils on linen that address the psychologies of studio spaces from a different angle. He drew inspiration from Ross King’s best-selling 2006 book, The Judgment of Paris: Manet, Meissonier, and an Artistic Revolution, which concentrates on that crucial moment in the 1860s when academic paint- ers could no longer ignore the pioneers of modernism. To represent the old guard, King uses the once-celebrated, now-forgotten realist Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), whose small, highly detailed scenes of histori- cal warfare and daily life were anathema to Edouard Manet (1832-1884), whom history has treated more kindly.
In paintings like Monsieur Manet, Fig presents Manet and Meisso- nier in their studios, drawing from actual incidents or from his own lively imagination. Setting aside for a moment Fig’s rich coloring and inventive (often witty) compositions, viewers cannot help but admire his sympathetic treatment of both men. He has, of course, grown up in an art world shaped by Manet, yet the very fact that Fig clearly knows how to create such convincing illusions confirms his debt to Meissonier’s milieu as well. This is art informed, rather than enslaved, by the past, and yet very much of our time.
Aaron Westerberg (b. 1974) is best known for ethe- real paintings of elegant women, posed gracefully among exotic textiles and studio props, seemingly removed from place and time. How he came to tread so surefootedly the trail blazed by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent is a story of personal determination and inspired mentoring.
Having grown up in San Diego an inveterate draftsman and copyist (especially of comic books), Westerberg found little at nearby Palomar College to excite him, except a class in life drawing. Soon he joined the local atelier of Jeffrey R. Watts (b. 1970), where he focused on drawing in hopes of a career in illustration. Westerberg fell for fine art, however, when he saw reproductions of Sargent’s paintings, followed rapidly by Dewing, Duveneck, Tarbell, Zorn, Sorolla, Fechin, and other masters of that golden age. Two years on, he enrolled in the California Art Institute near Los Angeles, where he later taught before taking a permanent teaching position at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. Westerberg says he always learns from his students, and he prizes the mutually supportive community of contemporary realists working in Southern California today.
Although he also paints still lifes, plein air landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits, women are Westerberg’s focus. “I think they’re the most beautiful and elegant subjects,” he explains, “and I want to immortalize them in paint. To me, watching women move is visual poetry.”
Technically speaking, Westerberg has one foot each in the old and new worlds. He loves to draw live models with charcoal on thin rice paper, and to paint them in transparent sepia tones on stretched linen. For finished paintings, it’s oils all the way. “When it’s something that has been done in the past, you feel a lineage almost like a classical musician would,” he says. “It’s sharing the same experience those artists before you had.” Yet Westerberg does not always use a live model, and thus may photograph her and compose his next scene using the computer and sketches. Well before he approaches the easel, this allows him to manage and anticipate any issues that might be hindering his vision.
Fortunately, his canvases betray none of a photograph’s flat- ness or harshness. They are, instead, softly edged, richly textured, and slightly mysterious. In our era of visual stridency, these effects are welcome, and we look forward to watching Westerberg evolve in the years ahead.