Whitehot Magazine

September 2011: Jim Herbert: New Paintings @ English Kills Art Gallery

Installation view: Jim Herbert, courtesy English Kills Gallery Brooklyn NY.

Jim Herbert: New Paintings @ English Kills Art Gallery
114 Forrest Street, Brooklyn, NY 11206
September 10 to October 16, 2011
A Walk-Through with the Artist

The theme is pornography. At least on the surface, Jim Herbert’s paintings are about documenting sex acts -- or the moments just before and after. Entering the gallery, confronted by vast-scale canvases of figures caught in anonymous intimate scenes, at first, the viewer may feel like a voyeur. After half an hour, the shock element dissipates. The subjects – blatant, graphic and gritty -- are diffused by Hebert’s distinct technique. The subtle modulation of texture and gradation of color transcend the immediate thematic preoccupation with raw sex.

Herbert admits to an obsession with the nude figure, and something absurd about the acts in which these figures are engaged.  “I have three words,” he said. “Explicit artificial actuality. The figures are involved in this artificial thing. There is something preposterous in these events.” In a casual interview at the opening for his show, Herbert, his long gray hair tied back in a ponytail, his face craggy in a Clint Eastwood kind of way, revealed with frank eloquence, why and how he approaches his subject. He is careful to qualify his preoccupation with the nude figure. “It goes beyond the utilitarian of the pornographic image. There has to be more to it -- an interest in the subject.” A hint of emotion, even tenderness, is portrayed in many of these works. In one of the paintings, Two Figures on Dark Couch, Herbert manages to express gentleness and feeling -- conveying the sense that this is more than just an act of sex.

In Three Boys on a Towel, the figures sit side-by-side, absorbed in their own individual worlds, preoccupied with what they’re doing, but almost in a blasé way, as if boredom had set in. The towel is painted in an intense aqua hue. Even if it was conceived with a pronounced third person detachment, the painting becomes less about the sex act, and more about the emotion -- or emotional vacancy -- captured on the canvas. 

Boy with Cell Phone seems to document a post-coital moment. Standing apart, two figures emerge from the background, the boy holding a cell phone while the girl looks on.  In Two Girls on Bed, the figures lie back on the pillows, their legs spread, spilling out of the foreground. A stream of light enters from the window, spraying across the sensitively wrought features of their faces.  Herbert is candid about his unique process. “I decided to give away the whole process in the age of transparency,” he said.

Jim Herbert, Installation View, English Kills Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

He divulges that he extrapolates the compositions from porn websites, which he searches on his Blackberry. “I like the way the Blackberry interprets the image. The color on the Blackberry, and the texture of the image, I could almost describe as painterly.” For Herbert, this is a form of impressionism, in that it’s the Blackberry’s impression of the photograph, as configured by the pixels. “I’m often quite faithful to capturing the way the Blackberry picks up the light,” he said.  He pointed out that Degas and Francis Bacon used photographs in their paintings too. In a more contemporary approach, Herbert holds his Blackberry for reference, while he stands on a ladder, painting freehand on the canvas. The nature of this process results in a characteristic perspective shift that contributes to his unique style.

Another definitive characteristic of Herbert’s technique is that he doesn’t use a brush. For 30 years, the artist has painted with his fingers, wearing rubber kitchen gloves. “I hide behind a certain clumsiness. I call it expressionism,” he said. His technique produces work he considers “somewhat gestural.” Using big movements, Herbert says he can paint large areas very quickly, typically finishing one of his canvases in a week, working three hours a day, one figure at a time. He mixes the color directly on the canvas while in the process. In Sex in the Backyard, Herbert’s capitalizes on his finger painting to articulate fine details like the boy’s hair and the blades of grass. There is evident dexterity in the way the foliage is dappled with light.  Aside from the subject and his process, the scale of Herbert’s paintings also contributes in a significant way to their visual impact. For this gallery space, Herbert actually had to go smaller than usual. Much of his work is in the 12 ½ X 11 ½ foot range, and these paintings are mostly around 10 X 9 feet, although two of the pieces shown here are as large as 11 ½ X 9 feet. Herbert explains that the larger scale frees him from the limitations of the pictorial, leaning toward the iconic. “The figures may free themselves of the constraints of the edges. It’s not so much about the framed spaces of the larger ones,” he said. “The smaller ones make me think in terms of windows and mirrors and the sense of space – which is much more pictorial -- and more about rooms and foreground and middle ground conventions.”

Also known for his work as a filmmaker, Herbert’s paintings resemble film stills -- brief vignettes of action, frozen in time. Although he studied with the American abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still, Hebert’s work is primarily representational, while rendered in an expressionist style.  Herbert received his MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, one for painting and the other for film. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Pompidou Centre, as well as various private collections, including those of Elton John, Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Larry Clark. He currently lives and paints in New York City.

Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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