Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibition Art & Human Consciousness, on view at the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts September 16 through December 6, 2009, was reprinted in Resource Library on November 7, 2009 with permission of the author and Thomas J. Walsh Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:
Robert January, Caves - Curveballs - Canvas
by Philip Eliasoph
Despite its languor, an electrical pulsation vibrates around Robert January's portrait of Brooding Tracey (2008). Channeled through this conduit of oil paint, a low voltage energy is emitted. To some degree, her solitary presence forms a pictorial composite of modernist painting lessons.
Our first impression seems to question how January could leapfrog over so much technical training. A quickly deployed, manual dexterity is necessary to paint with such confidence. Only a small handful of upcoming American painters could compete with the crack-shot proficiency seen in January's most recent paintings. His nimble fingers seem to execute what he is now viewing with eyes wide open.
Echoing Cezanne (tipsy frontality), Picasso (strangely eye-lidded Iberian heads), or even Balthus (perplexed ennui), the half-length portrait was expanded into an even more adventurous life-sized pose of a seductive Tracey in a tight black dress. One catches a faint glimpse of Manet's dazed barmaid at the Folies Bergère. Any dubiousness that he could not push beyond the smaller image is immediately dismissed after seeing Tracey's imposing silhouetted figure writhing against a minimalist background with a wisp of a shadow.
There's a whiff of Morandi's spatial evanescence, with a barely perceptible figure/ground relationship in Tracey in a Black Dress (2009). January's brushstrokes have a granularity, perhaps a nod to Lucian Freud's transformation of flesh into raw carnage.
Fraught with tension, Tracey in Jeans (2009) is compelling evidence of January's rapidly developed painting skills. Whether January has calculated, lifted or spontaneously quoted these motifs, remains an open question. Added complexity appears in Tracey in a Gray Dress (2009). It might just be that January's art is informed by the past but navigating its own path in a process of self-discovery.
In this moment, he seems to be hearing the re-awakening call to draw and paint the figure. And this was not unnoticed by Sabine Folie, a curator of the Centre Pompidou's seminal exhibition: 'Cher Peintre, Lieber Maler, Dear Painter.' Exciting Paris in 2002, it pivoted towards a renewal of figurative realism. In her catalog essay she notes: "Painting may have been for a short time somehow denied by an overexposure of video, computer-art, or photography, but in the end, its methods of representation and transformation were enriched by all those media and not diminished." Denying the ubiquity of pixilated images dominating our visual field, the oil brush on canvas challenge becomes paramount.
Climbing up a leafy path to his studio/home, January is a pensive figure at the top of the driveway, dressed in rumpled clothes and muddy clogs. Glancing down at his hands, he appreciates the essential value of the grip flowing from his fingers. "I need to make my hands feel happy," he admits. Shaking out his kinesthetically elongated, flat fingers is a primal gesture. These muscular digits were once wrapped around the red stitches of a beat-up Rawlings hardball. Now they are grasping conte-crayons, soft sticks of charcoal, and the natural wood shafts of oil brushes.
An alchemical -transformation connected the fragmentary parts of his consciousness. It's almost as if the two halves of January's being -- global trader/broker of multi-million dollar energy contracts and lonesome cowboy artist -- are dynamically fused. Coming to terms with his predicament becomes a synergistic example of mind/body dichotomy. "As long as my hand is connected to my heart, and not my brain, my art seems to progress." No wonder he is also ambidextrous.
Acting upon an inner voice which first spoke to him at a remote geographical location at the end of the world and the beginning of time, his artistic career began inauspiciously. "Disegna Antonio -- disegna e non perder tempo! [Draw Antonio!, draw and don't waste time]" -- was Michelangelo's exhortation to his young apprentice, Antonio Mini. January plunged into a life drawing class at the Silvermine School of Art in 1999 -- and grew increasingly aware of being "whole again." Ignited in mind and spirit, he continued with the fundamentals of drawing, perspective, composition and most importantly painting from life.
"I basically taught myself to draw and paint. More accurately, it was the model that taught me." Without mimicking his teachers, January sought out master artists as pedagogical coaches. But he never opted for slavish imitation of their drawing or painting methods. "Really -- the best teachers were those who let me discover for myself." At first he tracked down "every sketch class in Connecticut with a nude model that would allow me access. Mostly there wasn't a teacher looking over my shoulder, all I needed to learn was directly in front of my eyes."
January poured through every major art book and catalog published in English and French offering theoretical and technical information about the Grand Tradition from Poussin to Ingres. "I never adapted the rigid academic formula method. Strategically I worked only from life, never from a cast." But he soon became engaged with the overwhelmingly emotional response to the nude as an idealized paradigm. His goal was fixed towards attempting this unreachable sense of perfection. As Robert Henri explained: "There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body."
His training continued at institutions which retain a respectful authority for historical models while addressing the issues of representational classicism in the present. At the Lyme Academy, the National Academy, and the Yale Medical School (where he was allowed to observe and dissect cadavers, January developed his skills. To create the best conditions for seeing, January bathes his figures in natural light, building up their tonalities from an underlying red ochre base enhancing their vitality. "The most exciting and difficult part of painting is rendering flesh," notes contemporary painter John Currin. "It's not a specific color, so it's a mystery to get it right."
January would add that "something magical happens in any painting when the color is correct, something akin to the irrational number pi in human proportions. When color and form proportions are one, the painting suddenly jumps alive. On the other hand, nothing is more difficult than color since it is totally relativethat is, proportional."
Steadily January's portfolio progresses from a wobbly novice to a more assured practice for the components of bel disegno: anatomy, composition, foreshortening, and chiaroscuro light values. Repeating methods of Florentine bottega of the Quattrocento or the 19th century atelier system of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he rapidly acquired an overall sensibility for the dynamics of capturing the pose, delineating the figure, and modeling the form with an expressive vitality.
Good evidence of this appears in the chalk drawing of Magnificent Man I (2003). The oblique foreshortening harkens back to Mantegna.
Along the links of this golden chain and a building block from January's early sketchbook, we find a rapidly executed pencil study of Paul Cadmus' muse, model Jon Anderson executed in a life-class at Silvermine.
A logical sequence progresses from Janice Reclining (2003) to Mary on Blue (2006) stepping up the ante from drawing to oil. Both compositions are designed with an underlying reliance on the geometry of a pyramidal cone, a format exploited from Raphael to Rubens. Enlivening the splayed limbs is the shifting torque between pelvis and torso. This spiraling technique -- figura serpentinata -- fully thrusts the figure against the picture plane.
Ten years after his first picking up brush, the artworks in this exhibition offer us a sustained overview of January's remarkable progress from a dabbling amateur to an internationally exhibited, journeyman artist. "I am pretty competitive." Recognition came quickly. Trotting out onto the art world's 'field of dreams', he advanced from community art venues to a major league stadium gaining acceptance to the Salon d'Automne in 2004, less than five years after beginning to draw.
This annual Parisian event, first staged in 1903, was a springboard for the careers of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Maillol. Today, it features about 650 artists juried from over 15,000 entries in a global competition to showcase talents. January has been invited for the past four years to exhibit works beneath the massive glass and iron roof of the Grand Palais, the Belle Epoque exposition emporium situated between the Pont Alexandre III over the Seine and the Champs des Elysees as well as other venues.
Last year he was voted into the Salon d'Automne as a societaire, or guild member, with voting rights on how the Salon is managed. And rather unexpectedly, in the absence of a global gallery or sales agent, a number of paintings have been acquired by savvy collectors. Quietly, and with very little hoopla, January's drawings and paintings are slipping out of his studio into the private collections of discerning collectors in Athens, Houston, London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney and Tokyo. "These artworks are my children -- it's comforting to know they're given some good new homes out there in the world."
Beneath the Big Sky of a late springtime afternoon in north Texas, we can envision a dusty ball field. Middle of nowhere Wichita Falls was the backdrop for an archetypal Kodachrome moment in 1966 as the bottom dropped out of a cruve ball into the catcher's mit. The ninth inning concluded as the umpire roared: "Stttrrr- ike Three!"
Rider High School's pitching star, Bob January, just completed a perfect shutout against its arch rival. Head hanging down as he walked off the mound, the pitcher enjoyed a bit of finality with that line of zeroes on the right field scoreboard. For an 'Ace', his string of victories was unchecked.
On the long yellow school bus ride back for the Fort Worth team, January's sullen opponents licked their wounds. They sensed his fearsome talent enduring a wincing no- hit, no-run performance. Unable to 'buy a hit,' each batter encountered January's uncannily refined sense of control and delivery. Clearly he knew how to squeeze his pinky and thumb in ways making each pitch into a bullet.
Hawk-eye scouts from the newly transferred Atlanta Braves franchise were luring him for a tryout just after graduation. A 'chip off the old block', Bob had inherited the innate athleticism of his father. History books recall how Alaric Delbert -- 'A.D.' January faced Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig when the Yankees trained in Texas in the pre-seasons of the 1930s.
At the University of Texas in Austin, troubled by the Vietnam War, he left baseball and fell under the spell of the 'life of the mind' from Plato to Heidegger graduating in 1970 as a philosophy major. "I came to realize that Philosophy is really looking at nature, from every perspective, inside and out, from the atom at the center of our physical being to the star at the furthest edge of the universe." The mental agility of January's young mind would enable him to transition in later years from abstract metaphysical thinker, to analytical entrepreneur, to romantically inspired artist. All was in pursuit of a purely transcendent state of being orbiting around the edges of "reality."
"Like the greatest figurative painting that endeavors to get behind all symbolic thinking of the figure, philosophy pursues the essence of the thing itself. And I honestly believe my experience in the Sahara desert was the result of a lifelong process of poetic discovery that began in pre-adolescence, meeting failure along the way. It was my philosophical approach to the international oil trade which paved the way to my insights that made energy markets more efficient." While global executives called him "clairvoyant" the balance sheets of his international oil clients came to demonstrate January was giving insights into the oil business using the intuitive resources of a Paleolithic shaman.
An abiding sense of responsibility for his country's actions led him out to the Middle East where he backpacked around. In Cairo, Amman and Algiers he gained a precious street-level understanding of the complexities binding and separating the Arab world and Israel. Few Americans would have ventured that deeply into the coffee-shops, souks and casbahs at the time.
As a freelance stringer for the old Houston Post, he filed first-hand reports from Jerusalem. Self-reliantly, he picked up usable Hebrew, French and Arabic language skills, but more importantly, he sat in cafes, made contacts, and developed a unique series of personal passports. Listen attentively, analyze the data, create a published account would evolve later as an artist into: look, observe, and draw what you have experienced.
By 1973, January was back in Washington with first-hand knowledge of petro-politics at the very moment OPEC exploded onto the front-page after the Yom Kippur War. A barrel of oil shot up from $3 to $12 while furious Americans fueled their gas-guzzling Detroit tanks. Only amnesiacs could forget license plate even/odd days lines pumping gas at an astronomical 55 cents per gallon. Perhaps Yogi Berra's quip -- "It's déjà-vu all over again" -- best objectifies the failures of US oil policies. January recently explains: "In fact, nobody outside a few top executives in the international oil industry had the slightest understanding of oil at that time."
January went to a news conference briefing attended by 200 members of the elite of the world press crowding a State Department auditorium. He was given a break and credentialed by publisher Wanda Jablonski to report for the highly respected Petroleum Intelligence Weekly. The Arab oil embargo thrust the world into a global economic calamity. With Dr. Kissinger presiding and newly appointed energy czar Bill Simon taking questions, the room fell silent. None of the star journalists from the world press had enough knowledge of the secretive world of international oil run by the Seven Sisters.
Realizing there were no questions as the press corps was completely unqualified with 'on the ground' expertise of Arab oil kingdoms, Dr. K became impatient and nearly walked away from the podium. Then a young fellow with a slight Texas twang raised his hand. With stunned silence from the major press pool correspondents, January was the man of the hour. "Pretty soon, a dialogue developed between Kissinger and myself. Basically I was just a kid. It wasn't that I knew the right questions to ask: it was simply that no one else in the room knew enough to ask any questions at all."
Years later, that audaciously outspoken cub reporter would become a mellowed, salt and pepper-haired energy veteran with international credentials. Gaining the trust of foreign oil ministers and private entrepreneurs, January's innovative logic has transformed the way 'black gold' is mixed, refined and delivered. "Plato taught me to question all assumptions. My company, Nytex Petroleum, Inc. has achieved success because I was willing to question basic underlying assumptions of the international oil trade.
PALEO: Caves & Shaman Hands
"Looking in a completely transfixed state of awe, I realized that much of the art I had seen in the museums had suddenly died these humans and animals painted many millennia ago were alive." As Gauguin's psyche was liberated escaping to the French Polynesian archipelago, January experienced an epiphany in 1987. It would forever shape his connection to the mysteries of human consciousness. Symbolically at the edge of the world, in an impossible to imagine 'off the grid' wilderness of the Sahara, he was artistically/intellectually reborn. From that moment forward, January's vision was dramatically reawakened. "Art is never modern," according to Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, "Art is primordially eternal."
As a side trip from his oil-business activities in Algiers, January and his wife Claude were given special access and a government appointed guide to fly them into the remote lunar landscape along the southeastern rim of Algeria. After hiking and rock climbing for three days to reach the highest of a series of plateaus, they finally arrived at the greatest outdoor art museum on earth known as Tassili n'Ajjer. There it happened.
Now officially protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, the forest of sandstone is a mind-boggling collection of untold numbers of drawings and petroglyphic carvings forming an antediluvian Sistine Chapel of human as well as exotic creatures, some now extinct. Scholarly debate dates these images between 25,000 and 1,000 bce. Some scholars suggest the spherical style heads may be connected to the threshold of human artistic consciousness from the Paleolithic era, coinciding with the era of Europe's great cave art at Lascaux, Altamira, and the newly discovered Chauvet site near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc.
Dr. Jean Clottes, representing the Ministry of Culture, is the pre-eminent authority who has spearheaded our understanding of the origins of human art making. Through his dating of Chauvet to approximately 34,000 years ago, Clottes explains how this information "revolutionized hitherto accepted concepts on the appearances of art its development, and prove that Homo sapiens learnt to draw at an early stage."
"Something magical happened to me out there. I felt a direct current charge with the living vitality of these prehistoric humans, buffalo, giraffes, elephants, our distant ancestors -- the hunters attempting to capture their souls." That life-changing moment is the source of the drawings and paintings manifested in this current exhibition. For a seasoned, global entrepreneur, this encounter with the transition from early hominids to fully evolved human consciousness, utterly transformed him from doing any more "business as usual." By the primal act of getting in touch with his hands, January felt connected to the frontiers of neuro-science. "I think that the hand built the brain as much as the brain built the hand," notes researcher Dr. Frank Wilson.
Akin to that mesmerizing scene from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: Space Odyssey," January is merely one of the evolved descendents of homo habilis, the hominid called 'Moon Watcher.' By manipulating his thumb to pinky dexterity to effectively wield a bone into a skull-crushing weapon, the horizon of human creativity and potential for destruction, is signified. This iconically breathtaking cinema sequence distills the entire ape-to-astronaut evolution of our species. Kubrick once admitted to an interviewer that his allegorical film was intended to be a "non-verbal experience, reaching the viewers' subconscious --- a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does or a painting."
Robert January's art is best understood as his attempt to find meaning somewhere on the map of human consciousness. Its form and content are visible scratch marks enabled by his mind/hand/soul coordination now hitting the 'strike zone' with his art. We can look forward to the new art he will be creating by collapsing the brief gap between the dawn of humanity and the precipice we now stand on out on the precarious ledge of history in the 21st century.
About the exhibition Art & Human Consciousness
"Art & Human Consciousness," a solo exhibition of paintings, drawings and photography by internationally recognized artist Robert January opened at the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery, Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University on September 16, 2009. A forty-page illustrated color catalogue including an essay from Fairfield University Professor of art history Philip Eliasoph accompanies the exhibition, which continues through December 6, 2009.
Dr. Diana Mille, Gallery director and curator of the exhibition touched the essence of this artist's vitality when she described the work in "Art & Human Consciousness" thus: "January focuses on the intimate act of drawing and its unique role in the development of human consciousness and art making."
Inspired by prehistoric art from the Sahara and Chihuahua deserts, January's profound respect for the vibrancy of the ancient works he has visited, studied and learned from became the impetus for his achievements. Mille sees a link between this contemporary artist and the primitives, "Both art forms -- prehistoric and January's -- ask significant philosophical questions: What makes drawing so distinctive and urgent? What are the philosophical implications of drawing from life? Does this have significant meaning and consequences outside the art community?"
"The great prehistoric art was made by humans who understood their subjects from the inside out," January said. "That's why it feels so alive and fuels our imaginationI paint where symbols won't go," he concluded. Primary in his approach to conveying the life he sees in his models is a fusion he exhibits in his work, "When color and form proportions are one," he explains, "the painting suddenly jumps alive."
January's work has been exhibited by invitation each year
at the Salon d'Automne in Paris since 2004. This annual Parisian event,
first staged in 1903, was a springboard for the careers of Cezanne, Picasso,
Matisse and Maillol. Last year, January was voted in the Salon d'Automne
as a societaire or guild member, with voting rights on how the Salon is
About the author
Philip I. Eliasoph is Professor of Visual & Performing Arts at Fairfield University. He has a B.A.from Adelphi University and M.A. and Ph.D from State University of New York at Binghamton. Dr. Eliasoph was appointed in 1975 as the first full-time Art Historian to join Fairfield's faculty in the early years of the Fine Arts Department -- more recently known as Visual & Performing Arts. He specializes in a matrix of courses on the social / cultural/ spiritual contexts of the arts of the Italian Renaissance and European and American arts, and focuses on persuasion and iconography in Fascism and Nazism. An art curator, art critic, and public arts advocate, he teaches "Museum and Gallery Art World Professions" and serves as a Commissioner for the Connecticut Commission for Culture & Tourism. His publications include:
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 7, 2009, with permission of the author and Thomas J. Walsh Gallery in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, granted to TFAO on October 16, 2009.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Joan Grant of Fairfield University for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text
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