Saturday, June 11, 2011

Art review: Vickrey's world too fragile for the real one

Lacy’s Sparkler (2008),‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey.

By Jenifer M.‭ ‬Vogt‭

‬Whimsy and wonder dominate in the world that Robert Vickrey creates in his painting.‭ ‬On first glance,‭ ‬there’s not much that is dark or foreboding.‭ ‬In fact,‭ ‬within moments of entering the exhibit,‭ ‬Robert Vickrey:‭ ‬The Magic of Realism,‭ ‬now on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art until June‭ ‬19,‭ ‬one feels,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬comforted.‭

And that’s because the symbolic images are reassuringly familiar.‭ ‬Look around.‭ ‬There are nuns and children and balloons and bubbles and sparklers and bicycles and lions and tigers and bears.‭ ‬Oh my,‭ ‬scratch that last part.‭ ‬There are no lions or bears,‭ ‬but there is,‭ ‬actually,‭ ‬a tiger‭ (‬Tiger,‭ ‬Tiger,‭ ‬2009‭)‬.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬overall,‭ ‬what there is,‭ ‬resoundingly,‭ ‬in Vickrey’s work,‭ ‬is a sense of safety associated with childhood.‭ ‬That quality makes this exhibit remarkably soothing to the soul‭ ‬— at the‭ ‬surface.

‬It makes it remarkably good,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬as a family-friendly exhibit.‭ ‬The subject matter,‭ ‬symbolism,‭ ‬and references to great artists serve as a good launching pad for talking to children about art.‭ ‬Yet as quickly as one decides that these paintings are simply beautiful,‭ ‬something might seem equally off.‭

Vickrey works in a style,‭ ‬as the show’s title suggests,‭ ‬known as magic realism.‭ ‬It’s a style‭ ‬with roots in pre-World War‭ ‬II Germany and is built around the idea that beautiful things are not always what they seem.‭ ‬Another artist known for this style is Andrew Wyeth,‭ ‬and his seminal work,‭ ‬Christina’s World,‭ ‬is the quintessential example of something that appears beautiful at first glance,‭ ‬yet has disturbingly melancholic undertones.‭

The same can be said of many of Vickrey’s works,‭ ‬though the sadness is not quite as deep.‭ ‬Both also chose egg tempera as their signature medium and this explains the striking similarity in many works.

Homage to Chardin‭ (‬2011‭)‬,‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey.

One such example is‭ ‬Bubbles‭ ‬(1976‭)‬,‭ ‬which seems an allusion to Wyeth in its color palette,‭ ‬lighting,‭ ‬and the partial inclusion of a window.‭ ‬In it a girl concentrates on blowing a bubble.‭ ‬She holds the type of bubble dispenser we’ve all used,‭ ‬so the emotional connotation with that object is pleasurable familiarity.‭ ‬The room is already filled with bubbles and this gives the impression she’s been at it for a while.‭ ‬As if the girl and the bubbles weren’t charming enough,‭ ‬there’s a kitten staring down at her from the windowsill.‭ ‬The girl is‭ ‬lit from above,‭ ‬like an angel,‭ ‬common throughout Vickrey’s painting.‭ ‬For him,‭ ‬children are angelic.

Yet,‭ ‬just as you’re about to lapse into a Hallmark-moment trance,‭ ‬something strikes you as odd and it’s not simply this painting,‭ ‬in and of itself.‭ ‬It’s this painting juxtaposed against an exhibit full of similar paintings of similar children engaged in similar activities.‭ ‬Suddenly,‭ ‬you may feel trapped in a world that’s comforting and safe‭ ‬because there’s no place else to go.‭ ‬And that’s when you realize you’re viewing transitory innocence,‭ ‬a dream that fades with age.

Perhaps that’s why there are brick walls throughout Vickrey’s work,‭ ‬to represent a barrier through which naïve fascination can’t pass.‭ ‬In‭ ‬Midwinter Dream‭ ‬(1984‭)‬,‭ ‬a toddler stands near a brick wall while balloons float about him.‭ ‬Nearby a dog jumps up and tries to grasp one.‭ ‬This child,‭ ‬like the girl in‭ ‬Bubbles,‭ ‬seems trancelike.‭ ‬The image of Henri Rousseau’s final painting,‭ ‬The Dream,‭ ‬is painted on the wall.‭ ‬The Dream is a work that juxtaposes symbolic objects against those that are out of place.‭ ‬What does it mean to have one dream juxtaposed against another‭?

Midwinter Dream (1984),‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey.‭

In‭ ‬Lacy’s Sparkler‭ (‬2008‭)‬,‭ ‬a young girl holds a sparkler‭ – ‬the kind given to children on the‭ ‬Fourth of July.‭ ‬She also stands in front of a brick wall on which images of angels floating heavenwards appear.‭ ‬This time the light seems to come from below and casts an interesting tri-shadow on the wall behind her.‭ ‬Like all the children here,‭ ‬she is expressionless,‭ ‬but appears engrossed in watching the sparkler.

Vickrey discovered,‭ ‬and adopted the egg tempera painting technique while getting his MFA at Yale.‭ ‬Egg tempera paint doesn’t yellow like oils,‭ ‬so it retains clarity of color and it also lends itself to being slightly easier to use than oil for painting fine details.‭ ‬There’s translucence because you can’t build layers as you can with oils or acrylics.

He worked,‭ ‬primarily,‭ ‬as an illustrator for‭ ‬Time‭ ‬magazine where he painted over‭ ‬70‭ ‬covers of influential people,‭ ‬including a‭ ‬1961‭ ‬portrait of author J.D.‭ ‬Salinger that was hung last year in the National Portrait Gallery‭.

Clearly,‭ ‬in his fine art,‭ ‬he was compelled to make a statement about childhood as a symbolic time in life and to pay homage to other artists.‭ ‬There are references throughout his work to specific classic works,‭ ‬such as in‭ ‬Clam’s Eye View‭ ‬(1990‭) ‬and‭ ‬Homage to Chardin‭ ‬(2011‭)‬ where he recreates Sandro Botticelli’s‭ ‬Birth of Venus‭ ‬and Jean Siméon Chardin's‭ ‬Soap Bubbles.‭ ‬In both,‭ ‬children are,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬engrossed in activities that children do‭ – ‬drawing,‭ ‬blowing bubbles.

Sea Breeze‭ (‬1985‭)‬,‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey.

Not all of Vickrey’s works deal with children,‭ ‬however.‭ ‬He was equally fascinated by an order of nuns that originated in Paris in‭ ‬1935‭ ‬know as the Daughters of Charity of St.‭ ‬Vincent de Paul.‭ ‬They are the subject matter of the most beautiful and interesting works in this exhibit,‭ ‬including‭ ‬Sea Breeze‭ (‬1985‭)‬.‭ ‬The colors,‭ ‬perspective and lighting evoke images by Giorgio DeChirico,‭ ‬and it appears that Vickrey was influenced by De Chirico who originated a realistic style with sinister undertones.‭

One of the nice aspects of the Boca Raton Museum of Art is that the layout provides an opportunity to stand in the center of an‭ ‬exhibit and do a‭ ‬360-degree scan of the entire gallery.‭ ‬It’s really helpful to view Vickrey’s work comprehensively because,‭ ‬overall,‭ ‬while there are allusions to De Chirico and Wyeth,‭ ‬Vickrey’s work is not quite as dark or disturbing as either of those artists.‭ ‬Rather it presents a transitory world that has an inherent sadness because childhood is ephemeral.‭ ‬And while the end of childhood represents the end of innocence,‭ ‬it’s not as much tragic as disappointing.‭

In commenting on the nuns as subject matter,‭ ‬Vickrey revealed a fascination for what is delicate.‭

“I was interested in the abstract shapes of the cornettes‭ (‬their headdresses‭)‬.‭ ‬These figures were becoming a symbol of something too beautiful and fragile to exist in our modern world.‭”

Throughout this exhibit,‭ ‬symbols of‭ “‬fragility‭” ‬are what binds each of Vickrey’s works to the other and tells the visual story of an artist enamored with respite,‭ ‬with creating a world shielded from the irredeemable,‭ ‬brute facts of life.‭ ‬A world where children are engrossed in play and nothing bad will happen,‭ ‬but where it’s clear that danger is lurking.

Robert Vickrey died just a few days before this exhibit began,‭ ‬at his home in Naples,‭ ‬on April‭ ‬17.‭ ‬He was‭ ‬84.‭

Jenifer Mangione Vogt is a marketing communications professional and resident of Boca Raton.‭ ‬She’s been enamored with painting for most of her life.‭ ‬She studied art history and received her B.A.‭ ‬from Purchase College.

Robert Vickrey:‭ ‬The Magic of Realism‭ ‬is‭ ‬on view at the Boca Raton Museum of Art until June‭ ‬19.‭ ‬Hours for this exhibition are Tuesday through Friday from‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬until‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday and Sunday from‭ ‬12‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬until‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬On the first Wednesday of the month,‭ ‬the museum remains open until‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Admission is‭ ‬$8‭ ‬for adults,‭ ‬$6‭ ‬for seniors,‭ ‬and‭ ‬$4‭ ‬for students.‭ ‬For more information call‭ ‬561-392-2500,‭ ‬or visit

Clam’s Eye View‭ (‬1990‭)‬,‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey

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