Editor's note: Todd Behrens' essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on October 20, 2006 with the permission of the the author. This text accompanies the catalogue for the exhibition James Michaels: Passion for Paint, being held at the museum October 21, 2006 - January 28, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Polk Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


James Michaels: Passion for Paint,

by Todd Behrens


In 1989, after years of building a successful career on what he has termed "Pop Expressionist" paintings, James Michaels made a dramatic shift in his work. After earning an Award in the Visual Arts fellowship in 1986, an honor that included a nationally touring group exhibition in 1987, Michaels suffered a major back injury that left him unable to paint for several months. He made the most of this time by studying works by great artists of the past, primarily Italian and Spanish artists from 1500-1650. Artists during this period achieved unprecedented heights in depicting dramatic moments: sorrow, violence, power, ecstasy. As Michaels recovered during this dramatic moment in his own life, these great figurative painters -- Caravaggio, Ribera, Tintoretto, Titian, Velasquez, Veronese -- inspired him to begin a new series of ambitious paintings.

What emerged during the next eight years was a series he entitled "Painterly Realism" in which he extracted elements of the works of these Old Masters from any definable historical context and placed them into stark, more contemporary spaces. Many of the earliest works in this exhibition, I Can See Clearly Now, Boys, Death of the Virgin, and 72 Faces, begun in 1989 or 1990, maintain a strong connection to the Pop Expressionist works in their style and composition. Boys and 72 Faces are grids of faces, both paying homage to 17th century painting while being outstanding introductions to the expressiveness in much of the other work in this series. The image of the boy, repeated twelve times in Boys, is adapted from Jusepe de Ribera's The Clubfoot (also known as The Beggar or The Clubfoot Boy) of 1642. While Michaels gives us no indication of the physical deformity from which the original boy suffers, he gives us plenty to chew on in these twelve portraits. Not one of them is a straightforward reproduction of Ribera's boy, who is presented with his disarmingly bright smile and his crutch slung over his left shoulder as he stands along a dirt road on a sunny day. In each of Michaels' boys, we see a different representation of pain, loss of identity, or caricature -- in other words twelve deeply felt interpretations of the clubfoot boy that Ribera's patron would likely not have enjoyed. But the grid and the various ways in which the purity of the original image is destroyed recalls works by Warhol such as Marilyn Diptych of 1962. The Pop-inspired grid is also used for 72 Faces, a work which seems inspired by the work of Charles Le Brun, a 17th-century French painter who taught, lectured, and published his ideas and sketches on human physiognomy and emotions. In many ways, the didactic rigidity of Le Brun's representations of human expressions was a centuries-early forerunner of one of Warhol's keenest insights, that being that precise reproductions are the quickest means to convert human into product, subject into object. Michaels seems aware of this idea as he uses splashes of paint to scuttle the perfect representations of emotions which he is more than capable of rendering.

In I Can See Clearly Now and Death of the Virgin we begin to see Michaels pull together imagery to create the effect of narratives without actually revealing to us the mystery of the language. By utilizing a limited palette, the images within the paintings take on a greater sense of drama, while recalling the late work of Caravaggio. In fact, the actual image of the dead Madonna in the central upper portion of Death of the Virgin comes from Caravaggio's 1606 painting of the same title. Michaels has also adapted two self-portraits of Caravaggio in the upper and lower corners at the right and an image of Bernini's sculpture Damned Soul of 1619, while perhaps drawing inspiration of the stunning illumination of hands in Caravaggio's painting Madonna of the Rosary. At the same time, Michaels includes in the left panel cartoon imagery of a woman carrying a pie as well as a partial bust portrait of a woman -- vestiges of his Pop work. But what do any of these adaptations mean? In many respects Death of the Virgin is a first step toward his more complex figurative works, serving as a large-scale collage of images that evokes feelings more than a clear story.

With paintings that followed, Michaels began to refine his work further, reducing his palette to combinations either of raw umber and white or of van dyke brown and white. The impact of this is to unify the entire composition-a particularly striking accomplishment given the large scale of these paintings. But the palette decision harkens back, again, to painting of the early Baroque period in Italy such as Caravaggio's dark paintings or Annibale Carracci's remarkable "fictive sculptures" which he painted in his frescoes in the Farnese Palace in Rome. This change also pays homage to great historical grisaille paintings ranging from 15th-century Flemish works such as figures in Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece to Picasso's monumental masterpiece Guernica.

While knowledge of specific art historical references such as these is not necessary to enjoy viewing Michaels' paintings, it helps provide a framework in which the complex emotions and ideas he depicts can be placed. Looking at the first major work from his "Painterly Realism" series, 13 Men, we find three representations of what appears to be the same, beaten man -- presumably the artist himself -- pushed against the foreground, each with a group of three men standing over him in the background with the exception of a single crouched man in the central panel. The space is crowded with sticks and figures, and the gazes of several men are directed at us, to the point that we do not know whether we are co-conspirators or the next victims. 15 Men presents a similar scene, but the action is more intense, making the few figures that stand casually all the more disturbing for their calm appearance. In this painting we can identify the artist quite clearly as the bearded man with closed eyes lying on the floor. This identification then leads to assumptions about the identity of the other victims in the scene whose faces are, again, concealed. The temptation to discern hints of an autobiography within these paintings is strong, yet Michaels' skill at recycling bits of history and popular culture are so good we are always left in doubt about the self-portrait as representing a real-life drama, a symbolic instant of psychological theater, or a straightforward exercise in creating late 20th-century Neo-Baroque tableaus.

And, therefore, Secrets might just be the most aptly named painting in the exhibition. Gone are most of the sticks from 13 Men and 15 Men, but the space is now defined through the inclusion of a balustrade and drapes. What are we to make of the ordering of the figures and their relationships? Most figures are behind the balustrade, some are partially concealed by the drapes, while others are revealed by the parting of the drapes. And the immediate foreground is filled not only with adults but with animals, sculpted busts and miniatures, a skull, and two children. But the artist is still on his knees, this time looking off to our right in the right half of the painting that is filled primarily with male figures.

Like Secrets, Allegory presents us with an intriguing title and a dramatic composition. A lone woman dominates the left panel with only a fluted column behind her and a squatting child at her feet. The rest of the painting is packed with figures representing a variety of ages, attire, and activities. Yet with all of the bustling actors in the scene, they are strangely disconnected from one another, similar in this regard to Secrets. And again we wonder if the figure of the artist on his knees is praying for true human interaction or is he just a cog in the allegorical engine?

The Stoning of St. Stephen brings together many of the elements Michaels found appealing during his art historical research: gloved hands (found in works by Titan and Velasquez), sticks and poles (also Titian and Velasquez), complex groupings of figures (as in works by Tintoretto and Veronese), and a basic use of allegory that intertwines Biblical stories and contemporary ideas (all of the artists mentioned in this essay). Once again the painting leads to so many questions: What is the cause of the stoning and is it just? Why are some men watching without holding stones? Why has the bearded man in the far background chosen to carry a stick rather than a stone?

Penitent Man, the latest of the paintings in this exhibition, brings a return of the men with sticks in conjunction with the other motifs that Michaels developed during this series: the woman wearing draped fabric, a portrait of The Clubfoot, the poles and balustrade, and the sculptures. But the men with sticks are not ready to strike, the background is open apparently to allow anyone to enter or leave as he/she wishes, and a dove is in flight. All of these inclusions seem to indicate that the period of suffering and retribution in the past paintings has ended and a period of peace might be ready to begin.

The questions and mysteries that Michaels deliberately raises in these remarkable paintings are intriguing. At the same time, we must not lose the appreciation of his application of the paint onto these canvases. Michaels could have chosen to have fully concealed his brushwork and finished these paintings with a glossy varnish to mirror completely the works of Old Masters. For all of their adaptations of centuries-old forms and subjects, these paintings are entirely of their time. As we look at them approximately ten years after their completion, the questions about the content are still there, but our sense of them as great works of art is undeniable.


Exhibition summary:

Michaels has created a phenomenal series of large sepia-toned and black-and-white oil paintings. The Polk Museum of Art owns one of these, 15 Men, which Museum visitors recently voted as their favorite artwork in the permanent collection. This exhibition will bring a large number from the series together, a series that features dramatic tableaus of figures that recall Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings though they are decidedly contemporary. Monumental both in scale and impact, the fifteen paintings in this exhibition are complex combinations of expressive and controlled brushwork, historic and contemporary imagery, religious and secular symbolism, and personal and cultural references.

Michaels was born in Brooklyn and came to the Tampa Bay area in 1971. After years as a successful commercial artist, he changed direction in 1980 to become a fine artist. By 1986 he received a national fellowship from the Awards in the Visual Arts. In addition he has received the Best of Show award at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the State of Florida.


About the author:

Todd Behrens is Curator of Art at the Polk Museum of Art.


Resource Library editor's note:

Todd Behrens' essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on October 20, 2006 with the permission of the the author. This text accompanies the catalogue for the exhibition James Michaels: Passion for Paint, being held at the museum October 21, 2006 - January 28, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Polk Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:

Also see a biography on James Michaels from the Raymond James Financial, Inc website.

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