Review by Charles Burroughs October 03 2014

The artist’s studio has been a constant but increasingly overt theme in western art for centuries. Renaissance artists needed a cover, and the famous anecdote of Alexander the Great visiting the great painter Apelles – and finding Apelles lusting after his beautiful concubine, whose portrait he is painting -- gave license for the representation of a working studio. So from the sixteenth century, painters used the theme to celebrate the status of artists as well as the power of art, since Apelles got the girl. Successful artists built themselves splendid living and working environments, like Rubens’s house in Antwerp, now a museum. For some artists the studio serves already as a kind of museum, a space for displaying their own work or that of friends and associates, emphasizing links of camaraderie as well as competitiveness. Some artists pin up photographs of the work of important predecessors, or collect objects that stand out for their strangeness, and which inspire innovation by challenging existing conventions. The architect Borromini collected shells and helical organisms -- natural “artworks”; and Picasso’s studio in the Bateau Lavoir famously contained African masks. In both cases, the contents of the studio sparked extraordinary creativity.

A related, sometimes overlapping, theme is that of the scholar or seer in a study. This has a longer history because of the popularity of scholar saints like St. Jerome, whose workspace may be a finely carpented domestic interior, complete with snoozing cat, or a rocky cave alluding to the ascetic Jerome’s efforts to separate from his earlier secular life and to repress the visions that haunt and tempt him. Albrecht Dürer’s image of Jerome busy at his desk among books and writing implements, the necessary and familiar tools of scholarship, contrasts with the same artist’s famous image, titled Melencholia I, in which thinking seems to run aground on its own processes and resources. Even more striking is Goya’s Sleep of Reason, showing the thinker encircled by monstrous apparitions. Less apocalyptic is the wonderful image by Vermeer of an astronomer by a window, dramatizing the constricted space of the astronomer himself in contrast to the unlimited reach of his vision, linking the infinite cosmos (represented within the painting by a heavenly globe) and the astronomer’s mental space. Rembrandt’s stranger image of (perhaps) a philosopher, also by a window but dwarfed by a threatening spiral staircase, surely alludes to the difficulties as much as the achievements of intense and solitary thinking, which the stair itself, twisting and vertiginous, seems to make visible.

The serial images of Arturo Rodriguez’s School of Night show the artist alone, even isolated, though within an environment populated by proliferating presences. For decades Arturo has worked in this same small house (unlike Rubens’s conspicuous mansion, it is modestly tucked away behind a screen of trees) alongside Demi, his partner and muse, whom we occasionally also catch sight of, at work at her own paintings. All around are a lifetime of paintings and collected objects, notably the masks that loom in his visions as if endowed with agency, like a nutcracker remembered from a childhood visit to the ballet. Unlike the solid and reassuring furnishings Dürer imagined for Jerome, the spaces and objects in Arturo’s images are fluid, subject to disorienting shifts of scale and position, constituting a miniature universe that evades all distinction of inside and outside, imagined and “real.” And yet these are not threatening or uncomfortable images. Instead they provide the sense of an artist confident in his power to take familiar objects as departure points for meditations on “reality” itself, or perhaps rather the various realities that he -- and, in varying degrees, all of us – encounter in our engagement with the world. It is the artist as magus, perhaps, as well as guide to the always porous boundary between layers of experience and to the universal possibilities of an inward journey.

 

About Charles Burroughs:

Charles Burroughs recently retired as Smith Professor of Humanities and Chair of Classics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Previously he taught at SUNY Binghamton and Berkeley. He is a historian of architecture, urbanism, landscape design,and visual culture mostly of early modern Europe; currently he is at work on a monographic study of Botticelli's "Primavera." However, his scope has recently expanded to include the park design and and urban planning of the Olmsted firm in Rochester, NY; this involves both academic writing and hands-on restoration of historic environments as a member of a Sierra Club group.