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CHARACTERS: Scene I and II
By Hélianthe Bourdeaux-Maurin


It seems the relation between image, narrative and art history occurs in cycles. To clarify, during antiquity, image was authorized and narrative, in the form of myths of Gods and Heroes, was closely bound to it. However, the rise of the great monotheist religions - Islam and Christianity - marked a retreat of the human figure. In Europe, Christian representations distance themselves from realistic conventions with the aim of further dividing the terrestrial and divine worlds. The 13th Century saw a broad movement of rapprochement between art and life in every realm: religious, political, aesthetic. From that moment on, artists re-conquered a sense of corporeal experimentation, that is, until the Renaissance fully promoted the mastering of realistic and naturalistic representation.


From a generalized, art historical point of view, more than half the 20th Century can be classified as iconoclastic. The preeminence of abstraction reached its zenith with conceptual art. All that was external to the medium was rejected. Following Malevitch's Formula, the 20th Century "left the world of objects" and moved away from all that did not return to art itself. The key concept of "art for art's sake" flowered into the ultimate exploration of the means and materials, the very mechanics of art. Amidst this experimentation of form and function, narrative, seen as an appendage of art, was regarded as merely academic and reactionary. Even De Kooning, after returning to the figure, was obliged to sooth the scandal by declaring: "painting took me there."


Pop Art took part in the rehabilitation of the image and of the use of external subject matter. A natural evolution followed that lead to the return of the figure, narrative, and ultimately, characters. The 1980's saw the triumphant return of realism, particularly in painting. Although inhomogeneous, this movement created an increasing large breeding ground for narrative.

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Reuben Negron, Untitled 1
2004, Watercolor on Paper
52" x 32"
Courtesy of the Artist


Why did we experience a revival of this artistic form within the fine arts? What differentiates contemporary narration, in all its forms and intentions, from those of Antiquity or even the 18th century? What quantifies this movement as a mirror of our society rather than a regression of artistic sensibilities? To provide a comprehensive answer to these questions requires great study of the subject, one that our art historians may not have enough distance to objectively consider. Nevertheless, one can try to analyze this phenomenon from an innovative perspective: characters. The link of characters to narrative is deep and necessary; they are, after all, the primary vehicles of story.

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Julian Stark, Stills from The 12 Labors of Hercules
2003, Video
Courtesy of the Artist

Characters: Scene I and II, is an exhibition that aims to shed light on the return of characters and our apparent need for the stories they tell. The exhibition features established, mid-career and emerging artists who come from the worlds of fine art and illustration. These artists span the globe, representing America, Asia, Europe, and all points in between. All the works have been produced between the 1980's and the present. Their works present cultural, historical, stylistic and technical diversity. They are bound by their aesthetic merit and, above all, by their use and development of characters. They are gathered with the aim of carrying out a short study (incomplete and partial, yet nevertheless relevant) about characters: their definitions, significance, their message, their instrumentality, their representation and creation. They are audacious keys to interpretation to our returned propensity toward narrative and realism.

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James Jean, Fables Trade Paper Back Wraparound Cover, Book 1, "Legends in Exile."
2002, Graphite, Watercolor, Photoshop
10.5" x 14"
Courtesy of the Artist and DC Comics

The first question one may ask is: what is a character? The dictionary defines a character as someone who appears in literary or theatrical works; a role played by an actor or assumed in a novel. By extension, characters would, in essence, appear quite naturally in an artistic work that contained narrative content. One can push the extrapolation further and insist that writing, psychology, and visual art assert that characters are symbols that represent information; that they carry complex mental and ethical traits relative to a person or group of persons. To refine these definitions, it is interesting to look at the values these artists assign their own characters.

For Nora Krug and Jeremy Bronson, a character is an idea, a standard - an entity personified, stylized, interpreted and given shape by the artist. For James Jean, a character contains a sense of history and continuity. For Fay Ku, they are a vehicle of meaning. Still others define characters by contrasting them with figures. For James Bewley, a figure is naked and empty where as characters are full and own personalities. For Reuben Negron and D. Dominick Lombardi, figures are closer to objects, occupying compositional and formal places within art. For Negron, a figure becomes a character the moment an artist attached a level of importance or content to that figure; the moment when a figure ceases to merely "be" and becomes the carrier of some larger narrative or communication. For Lombardi, this moment occurs when the artist insufflates a personality, a history, and a life with in the figure. Julian Stark's definition is closer to the precedent since it compares the immobility of the figure to the dynamism of the character. In any form, the characters depicted in the works of the show exceed individuality and take an exemplary dimension, even metaphorical, which must be specified.

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Kyung Jeon, Hair Rope
2004, Gouache, Graphite, Ink on Paper
9" x 7"
Courtesy of the Artist and The Proposition

The metaphorical dimension of many characters represented in this exhibition is undeniable: those of Jeremy Bronson and Kyung Jeon are physical interpretations of emotions, demeanors, or real events. The title of Reuben Negron's watercolor The End (Death), alluded not only to the terminus of the main character's life, but also the finality of a story told. In addition to being metaphorical, the main character we see evolving through the course of his nine painting series is an archetype. Indeed the series as a whole is founded on the deconstruction and analysis of the fundamental Western narrative structure: the Hero, the Status Quo, Conflict, Resolution, the Eternal Return, etc... The character that evolves represents the synthesis of the every-man, the every-hero, and the every-story. Michael Rees' Putti are also archetypes. In this case they are archetypes of divine entities that Rees transforms into metaphors of the human condition and of its inner battles. Nora Krug, with her retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and James Jean, with his cover images for Fables (a monthly comic book series from DC Comics exploring the life of fairy tale characters trying to exist in the "real world"), confront imaginary, yet canonical figures, and insufflate new life, a more human aspect into them in an effort to move them away from the archetype. From fairy tales to legendary characters there is only one step.

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Chitra Ganesh, Sisters
2004, Ink on Paper
18" x 24"
Courtesy of the Artist


Also on display, Philip Guston, Chitra Ganesh and Julian Stark operate a fusion between history and mythology. Other artists, such as Joan B. Wheeler, Shannon Plumb, Cindy Sherman and R. Crumb use stereotypes in their work. R. Crumb summarizes guys and girls in his tablecloth drawings Le Mec and La Fille. Shannon Plumb caricatures professions, such as a stewardess, with humor. Izima Kaoru employs his characters to idealize murder. In her video Love, Tracey Moffatt organizes taxonomy of the kiss, the slap and the brutality between the sexes. Her topic evolves through the stereotypical portrayals of love in the cinema, it's extreme beauty and its equally extreme ugliness. The imaginary characters of D. Dominick Lombardi's post-apocalyptic world oscillate between metaphor (Heaven and Hell), stereotype (Exotic Dancer, Clown), and the allegorical promise of a better world in which men have lost the capacity for destruction through self-destruction. In this world, his characters' need for survival, in spite of suffering and deformity, finally share in levity, kindness, and respect. By losing their human forms through mutation, his characters attain higher human emotions. The famous ironical self-portraits of R. Crumb, Takashi Murakami's Dob, Bewley's Bat, and Nina Levy's sculptures appear more or less like caricature alter egos imbued with a more universal meaning. Artists use characters with a higher goal than exploring their definition or dimension. Characters plunge their roots deep inside the artist's stories and interests in order to disseminate ideas and messages.

More important than the type of characters, are the inspiration and the ideas they convey. The majority of artists take their own life as a starting point to create their characters. James Bewley uses himself as a reference through improvised performances in front of his mirror. His inspiration also comes from the universe in which he grew up. As he explains with humor and poetry: "I get my inspiration from ridiculous and sad characters that can be found at antique car shows, flea markets, at the sad local mall (before expansions and SUV's). A character smokes a cigar, collects covered wagon memorabilia and rides a motorcycle to church. "
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Fay Ku, Your Mother's Out To Get You (I)
2004, Graphite, Stabilo and Gouache on Gray Paper
38" x 50"
Courtesy of the Artist
For R. Crumb, people watching is a necessity. He captures moments, gestures and expressions while drawing on table clothes at restaurants. D. Dominick Lombardi offers a response to a raw, restless and emotional youth culture and, in turn, suggests alternatives to our self-destructive ways. Fay Ku, Kyung Jeon, and Yoshitomo Nara, of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese origins, respectively, share a number of commonalities in the creation of their characters. They are obviously inspired by their emotions, experiences, and friendships, but most of all by childhood memories where fear, trauma, and conflict are explicitly present. Fay Ku, and Kyung Jeon both amalgamate Western and Eastern folklore and myths. Kyung Jeon evokes Korean children's books and the Kama Sutra in her sado-erotic daydream images. Fay Ku develops a complex and fantastic symbolic system around a personal mythology populated by birds, mother-daughter relationships, death, and guilt. Together, the three Asian artists cultivate the paradox between cuteness and strangeness, between childhood and adulthood, all the while issuing an overall aggressiveness, both subtle and explicit. A metaphorical and psychological reading cannot exclude a vision decisively disenchanted and haunting. Izima Kaoru, another Japanese artist, devotes his photographs to another ambiguity, that between life and death. This dichotomy is produced by the immaculate beauty of his characters, the impression of silence, the stopping of any movement, and a set both cinematic and theatrical.

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Nora Krug, The Little Red Riding Hood's Perspective
2004, Mixed Media
Courtesy of the Artist

Many of the artists use their characters with the purpose of social critique. Chitra Ganesh creates legendary characters that personify a fusion between Western, South Asian, and Hindu cultures and thus, dissect imperialism, social codes, standards, immigration and patriarchy. The purpose of her mises-en-scene is asking the right questions rather than offering solutions. In Aegeans, and Pile Up, Philip Guston unites his interest for battle scences with his penchant for antiquity and ancient art in order to provide a satirical point of view of society; a tragically comic vision of the pathetic destiny of human being. Cindy Sherman's multiple disguises have the same purpose: to offer a sharp vision of ourselves with the intent, perhaps, of helping the world to evolve.
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Philip Guston, Pile Up
1983, 1-Color Lithograph
20" x 30", Edition of 50
Estate Stamped Copyright (1983)
Philip Guston and Gemini G.E.L. LLC
Julian Stark advances a humorous and squeaking embodiment of a shoddy goods Hercules transferred into the present, a metaphor of the impotence of the contemporary hero. Nina Levy offers powerful visions of the artist's condition in today's art world. Artists are like actors, sick at ease, holding a place they did not choose so they might participate. Performance is the basis of Shannon Plumb's art. Intending to become an actress but detesting the unfair competition of show business, Plumb began creating her own movies, ones in which she embodies various characters and becomes a solitary actress. For some artists, the main purpose of using characters is to defend ideas. For others, it is the focus on story telling itself that is paramount.


Parallel with the messages the artists communicate, narrative is permanently manifest. It is all the more crucial for the artists for whom storytelling is the principle reason for the use of characters. James Jean, as the cover illustrator for Fables, must respect and summarize the content of several storylines. As an ongoing series, each new cover for Fables must present the characters in various attractive manners. One of his unique innovations is to invert the design-content hierarchy, allowing the structure of each cover to dictate it's content, and vice versa. It seems the younger generation seems to be inhabited by ideas of communication, by the importance of characters as vehicles of story. For instance, Reuben Negron uses his characters more as actors in an effort to "study the way we already tell stories to be able, one day, to explore the ways we do not tell stories."
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Shannon Plumb, Stills from Stewardness, Lemonade, Weatherman, Paper
Video, 11 min
Courtesy of Sara Meltzer Gallery

Narratives are universal means to communicate complex ideas and emotions. Like Reuben Negron and James Bewley, Jeremy Bronson seeks the empathy of the spectator with his animated video Timekeepers. Bronson leads the viewer into a dream like world, at once disturbing and attractive, foreign and familiar, absent of any clear moral or lesson. James Bewley strives to render a "misinterpreted moment, a misheard word." His drawings become more atmospheric than narrative. Nora Krug dissects and reassembles narrative. Her interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood explores the hidden possibilities and unspoken histories of Little Red's Mother, Grandmother, the Hunter, and of course, the Wolf. Fay Ku gives primacy to psychological impact and theatrical narration. According to the example of Beijing Opera, the physical relations between characters surpass any set in order to concentrate the onlooker's attention on the strength of the story without any distraction. For Tracey Moffatt, Shannon Plumb, and Julian Stark, narrative is rendered and emphasis added in the interpolation of close-ups, wide-angle camera shots, accelerated images, and explanatory music that acts as a character itself. The absence of dialog or narration, the tragic and pathetic humor that captivates the visitors and other elements develop narrative.

Although all the artists in this exhibition may fall into the school of realism, their executions remain extremely divers. Within the same cartoon like aesthetic, differences are pronounced. Nora Krug herself plays the chameleon in her series as she adapts her drawing style to suit her characters. Little Red Riding Hood's tale is rendered in a naïve, child-like manner. Conversely, the Mother's story is contorted, elegant, complex and colored with a limited palette. The Wolf's tale reflects animalistic aggressiveness. Nora Krug pushes form so far one can sense a flirtation with abstraction. The series, Snow Moon Flower, by Takashi Murakami naturally corresponds to a style of his own creation dubbed "Superflat." The influence of Manga is obvious in the work of Yoshitomo Nara and James Jean (it is also important to point out that James Jean counts Chinese painting and Vilhelm Hammershoi amongst his influences). If one may generalize, Kyung Jeon, Fay Ku
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Fay Ku, Lifeboat
2004, Graphite and Gouache on Gray Paper
38" x 50"
Courtesy of the Artist
and Chitra Ganesh's stylizations arise as much from comic books as it does from Asian and traditional Indian art. The cartoon aspect of D. Dominick Lombardi's characters does not resemble any other. His aesthetic is that of a tattoo artist from the future, inspired by pop culture relics. R. Crumb associates cartoon-like caricatures and sensitive portraits of everyday individuals on the same page. The realism of Reuben Negron's work is simulated and yet remains credible due to its consistence. Despite the extreme believability of texture, space is distorted, light is selective, and figures are pieced into subtly deceitful poses all with the purpose of guiding the viewer's eye through the narrative. The 1970's are long past and the hyper realistic tendency is evolving. Nina Levy gives movement an always-unexpected turn that carries disassociation and reconciliation. In his sculpture, as in his videos, the biomorphic and digital hyperrealism of Michael Rees owes it's aesthetic to fantasy where as physically, his Putti, derive from the ultra rationalization of numbers. In a like manner, Izima Kaoru's sublime actresses transcend realism and enter the kingdom of the phantasmagoric. The stylistic diversity of the realistic movement appears clearly in this exhibition. While the term "realism" could suggest the direct appropriation of reality, let a short study of the processes employed by the artists propose another argument.

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Nina Levy, Spectator
2005, Polyester Resin, Steel, Oil Paint
73" x 18" x 17", Exclusive of Steel Plate Base
Courtesy of the Artist

At this juncture, overview of process seems necessary. Surprisingly, although the concept of character evokes a nearly divine perception of the creation of a figure in the image of man, few artists in this exhibition use photographs as their direct resource. Nora Krug uses photographs solely for research; she prefers to draw her own version of people and object. Jeremy Bronson uses photographs for structural reasons or mechanical props. James Jean photos only for details. In fact, only Nina Levy and Reuben Negron use photographs as direct reference. During his drawing stage, Reuben Negron cuts them up and assembles the photos in a cut and paste manner to simulate the desired composition. The creations of James Jean, Nina Levy and Michael Rees and Reuben Negron require a relatively elaborate up-stream preparation. The preliminary drafts in particular are essential. Creation by computer precedes physical life for the sculptor Michael Rees. He could be described as a reverse Pygmalion for whom the image of the character acquires as much, if not more than life than its incarnation. For others, the process derives more from intuition. None of them know what the work will look like once it is done. The personality and story of Jeremy Bronson's characters are based on the pure physicality of their form, on the specific materials used. James Bewley looks at himself in the mirror and runs to draw what he recalls. He tries to concentrate what he wants to say in a single panel and in one shot. Nora Krug starts with an emotion rather than a graphic idea and releases the story piece by piece. Kyung Jeon's characters are drawn directly from stream of conscious; they gestate in a subconscious place in her imagination. Fay Ku starts with a figure, and expression; she then introduces a decorative element or pattern. Each new step is an exploration, a discovery, a risk. Without any pre-determination of the finished creation, the artists listen to the internal logic of their characters and their aesthetic. The creation of their characters proceeds mentally from reality, but a reality filtered by style and imagination.

Thus, this study of creation, significance, instrumentalization and the representation of characters in contemporary art, propose answers, or rather, the beginning of answers, to the existence of the contemporary realistic and narrative propensity. Perhaps, on one hand, this revival can be explained by the fact that narrative makes it possible to enlighten the conflicts of the world through the intensity of the ideas that the artists defend and the complexity of the symbolic and intellectual organizations they generate. On the other hand, Modernism, center on form. Hence, aesthetic quality and stylistic conscience accompany artists' pressing need to "recover a depth of feeling." The contemporary era "pushes the intent back to the artist" according to Marshall Arisman, famed illustrator, artist, historian and author. While narratives of gods, heroes and legends were present from the Renaissance through the 19th Century, nowadays artists and storytellers for the most part craft narratives on a more personal level. The barriers between illustration and fine art have become permeable thanks to various medias. Illustration and graphic design have had a huge influence on fine art, illustrators exhibit in art galleries, painters direct films, etc... Narrative is everywhere.
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Tracey Moffatt, Stills from Love
2003, Video, 21 minutes
Edited by Gary Hillberg
Courtesy of the Artist
The obsessive need of our Western society to communicate is certainly a determining factor of this phenomenon. Indeed, narrative images are the ultimate means of communication due to its ability to transcend culture and language. Finally, when pre-digested images or spectacular events fill up society, it is the duty of art and artists to offer an alternative and to respond to an inner and unconscious need. Narrative evokes our "common humanity," stimulates identification, and activates memory. Artists leave enough mystery and freedom in their works to let the imagination of the viewer flow. In the end, if we were yearning for only one response to the current need of visual stories and characters, we could listen to the simple and powerful statement by Susan Sontag, who unfortunately recently passed away, "why do we need fiction: to stretch our world."




Characters: Scene I
March 4 - April 26, 2005
Shore Institute of the Contemporary Arts
20 3rd Avenue, Long Branch, NJ 07740
Artists' reception: Sunday, March 6th, 2005, 3 - 7pm

Characters: Scene II
March 20 - April 21, 2005
Silvermine Guild Arts Center
1037 Silvermine Road, New Canaan, CT 06840
Artists' reception: Sunday, March 20th, 2005, 2 - 4pm



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Jeremy Bronson, Untitled
(Stills and details from Timekeepers), 2005
Digital, 502 x 753 Pixels
Courtesy of the Artist




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Reuben Negron, Death (The End)
2004, Watercolor on Paper
30" x 22"
Courtesy of the Artist



















































































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D. Dominick Lombardi
Shrunken Head #3

2001, Reverse Painted, Acrylic on Plexiglas
24" x 20"
Courtesy of the Artist


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Michael Rees, Putto 2.2.2.2 (v2)
2003, Resin Filled Plaster, Aluminum Paint
14" x 16" x 14"
Courtesy of Bitforms


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Robert Crumb, El Sombrero
2001, Ink and White Out on Paper
9.875" x 13.5"
Courtesy of Paul Morris Gallery


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Joan B. Wheeler, Baking Up a Storm
2004, C-Print
11" x 14"
Courtesy of the Artist













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James Bewley, The Bat, Reading
2004, The Bat Series, Gouache on Bristol
17" x 14"
Courtesy of the Artist


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Yoshitomo Nara, Beah
2003, Lithograph on Tosa Torinoko Paper with Chine Colle on Arches Cover White
25.875" x 19.875"
Edition on 72
Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery










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Philip Guston, Agean
1981, 1-Color Lithograph
32" x 42.5", Edition of 50
Copyright (1981)
Philip Guston and Gemini G.E.L. LLC














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Izima Kaoru, Otsuka Nene wearsTuzigahana-213
1999, C-Print
40" x 50"
Courtesy of Von Lintel Gallery




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Yoshitomo Nara, Guitar Girl
2003, Lithograph on Tosa Torinoko Paper with Chine Colle on Arches Cover White
25.875" x 19.875", Edition of 75
Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery





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Takashi Murakami, Snow, 2002; Flower, 2002; Moon, 2002; Suite on Three Screenprints
28" x 28" each, Edition of 50
Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

















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D. Dominick Lombardi, Twister
2002, Mixed Media
29" x 14" x 16"
Courtesy of the Artist

Bourdeaux-Maurin, Hélianthe, "CHARACTERS: Scene I and II," Exhibition catalog, Shore Institute of The Contemporary Arts, March 2005