There’s something Matisse-like about the nudes of Betsy Podlach.
Perhaps it’s the flat shapes of saturated colors that evoke Japanese woodblock prints. Or the dancing quality of the figures. Or the primal sense that you are looking at something that happened a long time ago.
“A lot of people say that,” Podlach observes of comparisons with the Fauve master. “You can’t escape his genius.”
Nor can you escape the genius of others in her work.
“Titian is a major influence for the way he uses the body and paint,” she says.
Viewers may also see a touch of Pierre Bonnard in the intimacy of the domestic vignettes she creates (“The Pink Room,” 2006); or Cézanne and Renoir in her sunbathers (“The Beach,” 1998); or Manet in her diners al fresco au naturel (“Lunch,” 2007).
What art lovers may not see is the effect of the Abstract Expressionists, who used bold colors and forms to convey thought and emotion in their paintings and to make New York the capital of the art world in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike Podlach’s, however, the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists, who were also known collectively as the New York School, were not representational.
Still, she says, “It’s an American thing. Those were our heroes. They were the masters when I graduated (from Harvard with honors) in 1987.”
Indeed, her mentor was Nicolas Carone, a member of the New York School and a founding faculty member of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture in Manhattan, which Podlach attended along with the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy, before receiving a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from the New York Academy of Art in 2001.
The Abstract Expressionist connection is not as remote as you may think. Artists like Jackson Pollock spent hours copying El Grecos and Michelangelos in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in part because the figure is the basis of all art. It is the basis of Podlach’s art, where the Surrealist painters’ love of symbols, psychology, literature and especially Greco-Roman mythology also comes into play.
“I love novels,” says Podlach, who also studied literature at Harvard with Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. “I started listening to ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad,’ and I’d have these dreams of these characters, and I started imagining their lives.”
There’s Diana, the severely chaste goddess of the hunt, with her bow and quiver of arrows and one breast provocatively bare; Mercury, the mischievous messenger-god, with his golden-winged feet; and Mars, the petulant god of war, taking a rest from his destructive labors with his helmet on his furry lap. As Mars sleeps, a dove watches him – from a safe distance.
Podlach’s painting of “Cupid and Psyche,” in which Psyche watches her love-god hubby as he sleeps while holding one of his phallic arrows, is not only reminiscent of any number of Renaissance and Neoclassical masters for its subject and treatment. It allows the viewer to consider Podlach’s mastery of the male and female nudes.
“It’s more exciting to do a male nude, only because I’m not a guy and it’s not as easy to access every single angle of the male body,” she says. “We talk of the beauty of the female body, but the male body is beautiful, too, the way the torso meets the legs.”
Does she think this is a post-feminist moment in which women can express themselves sexually, as her male and female nudes suggest?
“I hope so, but I’m not sure,” she says. “I remember Cosmo(politan magazine) when I was growing up was all about having orgasms. Now it’s all about multiple orgasms.”
But it’s “ridiculous” to think that women haven’t always tapped into their physical, erotic natures, she adds – especially if those women happen to be artists.
“The thing about painting is that it’s so physical,” says Podlach, who also spent years painting in Paris.
If so, then Podlach leads a very physical life, for she paints “every day and as long as I can at all hours” in the studio of her home in Hampton Bays near Southampton, N.Y. She takes a break by swimming in the bay and the ocean, gardening and playing with Malcolm, her sweet Bernese Mountain Dog/Labrador Retriever mix.
Podlach stretches her own canvases, which are made of Belgian linen and range in size from about a couple of feet in width and length to six feet. She preps them with a gesso made of rabbit-skin glue, then builds forms and layers with oils and egg tempera, a technique that is used in fresco painting.
“It’s very matte. It’s the oils that make it glossy.”
Podlach, who’s exhibiting her paintings at The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge, says in her artist’s statement, “My images of women and men start by observing my own reflection in a mirror, a man I know modeling for me, or photos of women and or men from other eras.”
She elaborates for WAG, “I started out painting other people – friends, not models. Eventually, people have real lives. They got older.”
So like Vincent van Gogh, she began painting herself. But it would be a mistake to think of her female nudes as portraits of the artist. Rather, Podlach views the nude the way the art historian Kenneth Clark did, as a kind of performance. These are characters, much as Cindy Sherman’s cinematic photographs of herself are character studies and a type of performance art.
What Podlach’s work also conveys is the sensuousness of the human body – male and female.
“We have this physical power,” she says. “We have this hope. We have this potential.”
You can view Betsy Podlach’s nudes at The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge. “I love it,” she says of the recently renovated space. “The light is gorgeous. You can see the layers of paint. And I love Susan,” she adds of gallery director Susan D. Grissom (featured in the June 2013 issue of WAG).
The feeling is mutual. “Betsy Podlach’s paintings are enchanting, depicting an intimacy with one’s own self,” Grissom says. “It is like being a voyeur when one looks at a Betsy Podlach painting and takes a glimpse into a rich, metaphoric artist life.”
For more on the gallery, visit thelionheartgallery.com. And for more on Podlach’s work, visit betsypodlach.com.