Brochure Monograph for Kalamazoo Art Institute Exhibition
This spectacular assembly of recent paintings by Fred Wessel principally features young women on the brink of maturity yet who linger willingly and leisurely in states of innocence. They are depicted in harmony with−if not the fruits of−the nexus of terrestrial and celestial spheres. A master of both iconography and technique, Wessel combines portraiture with still life against a foil of astronomical maps in homage to the Renaissance paintings that he has assiduously observed. The models’ anonymity encourages viewers to contemplate universal themes rather than to dwell on comparing likenesses with specific sitters. Yet, their distinctive features assure us that these are portraits of living women who invite our double-takes. In their familiarity, we can glimpse the quintessence of youth. In line with the paradox of capturing the infinite within a grain of sand or drop of rain, so too can we witness an interminable realm within each of Wessel’s minute details: a single leaf, a fold of drapery, or the subtle graduation of flesh tones from a shadowy chin to the blush of a cheek.
Compositionally reminiscent of northern Renaissance calendar folios, such as those in the Très Riches Heures (a sumptuously illuminated prayer book), made c. 1412-16 by the Limbourg Brothers for the Duke of Berry in France, Wessel’s paintings are organized within the inverse U-shape of a Roman arch that acts as both a compositional and metaphorical portal. In terms of materials and techniques, Wessel follows the methods outlined in the early fifteenth century by a minor Italian painter in the circle of Giotto named Cennino Cennini, whose Il Libro dell’Arte (a craftsman’s manual) includes, among other fascinating tidbits, recipes for making gesso from rabbit skins; mineral sources for pigments and methods for grinding them; discussions of whether to choose brown, white, or speckled eggs to create a viscous binder for tempera; as well as practical and moral advice for managing a workshop teeming with apprentices. Wessel’s contemporary revival of early fifteenth-century panel painting techniques begins with underdrawings in silver point followed by ink washes to add values, then a gradual layering of pigments−first Terra Verde as an undercoat for flesh tones−applied with painstakingly short brushstrokes, then a khaki-like green called verdaccio (Italian for “bad green”) in the shadow areas. The paintings in this exhibition encompass a dual approach to rendering visible light. The gold-leaf backgrounds (applied with a reddish clay called bole that adheres the metal sheet to the gessoed wood) are reflective of actual light in the same ways that Renaissance artists wanted their devotional panels to refract flickering candlelight and “glow” in dark, cavernous chapels and cathedrals. The effects of natural light too are manifest in the figures by means of Wessel’s deft interplay of highlights and shadows that imply an external light source.
Wessel’s signature style is immediately evident in Aquila, whose title (the Latin and Italian word for ‘eagle’) refers to a constellation in the north sky visible during in the summer. Thematically, the subject matter of this work is evocative of both Roman mythology (Aquila was the eagle who carried Zeus’ thunderbolts) and the polytheism of Native American spirituality in which the eagle was sacred. The serifed typography of the word AQUILA that hovers between the figure’s lips and the eagle reminds us of both the timeless endurance of Roman inscriptions and the Sienese painter Simone Martini’s use of Latin script hammered into the goldwork of an early fourteenth-century Annunciation (in the Uffizi, Florence) as way to transliterate a dialogue between Mary and Gabriel. The spiritual conversation between a virgin and a winged being is not unlike the girl and bird paired in this work. The canopy of blue sky with waning crescent moon in the upper left corner offers a cosmic depth that defies the flatness of the background. Punched holes in the gold leaf form radiating orthogonals that imply sunrays and starlight, or even the orientation lines of latitude and longitude on maps. The star-spangled backdrop is overlaid with palladium leaf in a way that connects the stellar patterns to the silver and diamond rings on the woman’s fingers. At upper right, the abstract geometry of the constellation is starkly paired with the realism of the line drawing of the eagle, and the metallic surface of the background contrasts with the warm flesh tones and subtle modeling of the figure. Wessel achieves hyperrealism through his mastery of egg tempera in the figure, especially in her loose braid and finger-tousled hair. Her white, cotton dress is sleeveless for summer: its lightweight simplicity invites recollections of carefree meanderings on summer days. The profile turn of the young woman’s head (with prototypes in Italian portraits of the fifteenth century) defines her aquiline or Roman nose, a feature that ties her to the constellation. The figure’s crossed hands and legs, as well as the two feathers pointed in opposite directions along a diagonal, keep the composition both relaxed and captivating. In the foreground, the broad, veined leaves and un-ripened figs, which mature in late summer and are thus concurrent with this constellation, evoke Eden before the Fall or even the woman’s own burgeoning fertility.
In a similar vein, the painting Delphinus (Latin for ‘dolphin’) is named for a constellation in the north sky close to the celestial equator. The word also shares links with Greek mythology, as Delphinus was the name of one of Poseidon’s helpers who sought and convinced the nereid (a virgin water nymph) Amphitrite to accept advances from the god of the sea. In thanks for Delphinus’ assistance, the god added a dolphin to the stars of the sky. The seated figure looks directly at the viewer, but casually and naturally, as if she has just turned and inadvertently noticed us. Bosses (raised metal semi-domes) studded with real pearls form an arc over the central figure, and candy-colored stars scintillate against the gold plane behind her. Her delicate hands hold a Chinese fish kite, a focal point that links water and air in the same way that the pearls cleverly unite these two realms. A spray of dogwood that bloom in the early spring as evident by the light green foliage adds a connotation laden with traditional Christian symbolism. The artist’s ingenuity is on full display in his skillful rendition of forms. The thin, gnarly branches of the dogwood branch contrast with the uniform scales of the fish. The studded pearls on the figure’s black, scoop-neck blouse are evocative of bubbles, and the triple strand around her neck repeat the shape of the bulbous eyes on the fish kite. The hinted lines of jellyfish and other sea creatures floating in the background cause viewers to question whether they are immersed in the sky or under the sea, or perhaps an implausible intersection of the two.
Likewise, the painting Libra highlights the zodiac constellation that lies between Virgo and Scorpio and a waxing crescent moon. With delicate fingers that balance a scale, the standing figure in profile recalls Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63), a masterpiece in oil of the Dutch Baroque period, in which a woman in the privacy of an interior room holds a scale yet seems to be weighing a moral dilemma rather than (or in addition to) the jewelry on her dresser. In concert with the painting by Vermeer, Wessel’s Libra suggests that achieving balance (whether of physical or spiritual dimension) is as precarious and fragile as life itself. Among violet trumpet lilies and rich foliage in the lower quarter of the composition, the figure seems to emerge from a lush garden, perhaps Eden or at minimum a primal state. The figure’s downcast eyes and loose tresses suggest an internal dialogue in a moment of solitude. The curvilinear forms (as evident in the black, diaphanous garment) and intricate interplays of positive and negative space (notice her extended finger at top and the cupped hand below) contrast with the mathematical grid lines behind her, as well as the punched holes in the gold-leaf that dot another pair of scales, like the implied lines that connect stars in a constellation.
Overarching themes in Wessel’s opere d’arte are embedded in dichotomous pairings: the infinite magnitude of the night sky compared to the brief, material complexity of life on land and in the sea; the measurable, knowable nature of science in contrast to the insights about humankind’s role in the universe that can only be discerned through the arts and humanities; precision and fluctuation; the continuity of time as marked by seasons, the zodiac, and lunar phases in contrast to ephemeral youth within a single life span; the timelessness of deities in classical mythology as a foil to individual, contemporary women; the beauty of blossoms and awakening femininity with an awareness of their inevitable waning; and in formal terms, the illusion of three-dimensional, hyperrealistic figures against flat, metallic backgrounds. In Wessel’s paintings, a frozen moment during the prime of each woman’s life is likened to one of the fixed stars in the vault of heaven above her. Through art, Wessel has suspended his models’ budding maturity so that we can experience a passing moment in a dreamlike semi-permanence. The depth of Wessel’s iconography and his mastery of Renaissance techniques yield masterworks that are as sublime in meaning as they are expertly crafted. Beyond luminous jewels that delight the eyes, these gilded panels invite us to envision and embrace the empyrean.
Katherine T. Brown, Ph.D., Director of Museum Studies and Asst. Prof. of Art History Walsh University, North Canton, Ohio
Fred Wessel loves working with the gold leaf medium.
“A friend of mine hates gold leaf,” said Wessel. “He likens it to working with dandruff and butterfly wings. You can not have a whisper of breeze or it will blow away. And egg tempera also requires infinite patience. Painting with it is like spinning cobwebs of colors; I build up the surface with tiny multiple strokes, one on top of another. But in spite of the problems, I feel right at home using almost forgotten materials.”
Gold leaf and egg tempera are two mediums that Wessel often works in because he loves the challenge. They were both popular among artists in the Italian Renaissance, a period that focused on the beauty of the human being. It was the influential Renaissance poet, Petrarch, who ushered in the philosophical movement called Humanism. This philosophy embraced values incorporating individualism and human ability in the pursuit of knowledge. These edicts were to be learned through the studies of the honorable Romans and Greeks of antiquity. This reference to classical history was the spirit of the Renaissance.
During this era, the development of the Italian self-portrait emerged beside the interest in the creative capacities of the individual. Wessel’s “Self Portrait Cortona,” a major painting in his one-man show, recalls these Humanist ideals. Wessel’s ambiguous smile, combined with his thick, graying beard, suggest that he is aware of these humanistic pursuits of intelligence and the focus on the human individual. His style reminds one of the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci.
The craggy cliffs and moody, stratified clouds behind Wessel exemplify the strength of his image in the composition. The use of muted hues in this Italian landscape exudes the temperament of a reflective and wise man. Wessel’s confidence in this self-portrait seems to withstand the unpredictable turn of events ushered in by nature. Many of Wessel’s showpieces are influenced by altarpieces and icon paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Although this contemporary artist does not preach a particular religious belief, he does elude to an overall spirituality. Frontal and three-quarter views were standard depictions of the serious and rigid figures of early Italian religious art. However, Wessel incorporates his modern interpretation into an icon piece in his “Molleye Gazing Back.” He paints a family friend, Molleye, exposing her back while she casually turns her head over her shoulder to glance at the viewer. Molleye, also a dancer, is depicted in a casual and relaxed position, a modern twist to past altarpiece themes. Wessel also pushes toward simplicity in his recent pieces. His simplicity is perhaps achieved by his use of a balanced and harmonious composition, much like the compositions mastered by Raphael.
Like Raphael, Wessel achieves a degree of poised unity in his subjects. Many viewers are intrigued by Wessel’s paintings, silverpoint figure studies, and graphite pieces, as they are extremely centralizedand formal. His piece entitled “Turkish Scarf” exhibits a young woman absorbed in her own daydream while gazing meditatively at a tiger lily. Inspired by the great Renaissance Masters, the direction of her gaze and the positioning of her head and arms create a pyramidal and centralized format. The opulent background reflects this ideal design format and produces an unidentifiable, yet intimate, atmosphere of warmth and security.
“There’s a visual truth in Italy’s great paintings that has profoundly changed me and my art,” states Wessel.
Wessel hopes that the viewer of his paintings can also achieve this visual truth by observing his works. The focus on the elegance of the female figure recalls the Renaissance artistic ideal of glorifying nature, and the beauty of the human figure. Some of Wessel’s female figures are dressed in opulent medieval gowns that create an enchanting, classical look. Not only did the artist create these figures in a Raphael–like distinguished beauty, each female figure seems to have a distinct disposition that is tangible to the viewer. The sublime grace and dignity, innocent expressions, and relaxed deposition, became characteristics of an attractive Renaissance woman. These personality components create a silent conversation of understanding between the viewer and the female figure studies.
Some of Wessel’s showpieces are smaller than his past works, especially with his figural studies. These smaller works shine like precious gems among the larger compositions. An intimate relationship between the painting and the viewer is established, and the viewer can only feel in awe of their beauty and involved detail. In the Renaissance, many artists were influenced by the Neo–Platonicnotion that one attains a degree of enlightenment through the ardent and sincere pursuit of beauty. Renaissance Masters such as Raphael Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti were deeply influenced by these Neo–Platonic aspirations. Thus, through their art, they attempted to convey a human life dedicated to the ideal elements of love, beauty and grace through their work. Similarly, through Wessel’s use of warm tones and the rendering of the youth’s graceful hair and lovely expression, one is reminded of these Renaissance Neo–Platonic objectives.
Sherry French, 2001