Maury’s story

Story, Richard Maury, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 21" x 271/2"

Story, Richard Maury, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 21″ x 27 1/2″

Photography of a certain sort—with a shallow depth of field—mimics the way the human eye sees more accurately than an image where everything is equally defined and sharp. What I see when I steady my gaze is actually a very tiny fragment of what’s before me. Right now it’s little more than three words on a computer screen around which everything else hovers, softly indistinct. What’s in sharp focus occupies about a square foot, right at the center, of what’s in view. At TV-distance, maybe three square feet of my entire field of vision are crisply defined. Which, conveniently, is roughly the size of the TV screen. The rest of what’s out there, around the periphery of that target area, remains indistinct. I forget this is the case because my eye is about as mobile and busy as a fly trapped in a room. Unless I’m watching something on that TV, or on my computer, my eye never rests. The sense that I see an entire room in great detail, with clarity, represents a mix of working memory and imagination, my mind constantly assembling and unifying the view. What I see is at any point during the day is, ipso facto, a work of imagination.

This was my thinking recently when I resolved to finish eight or nine small, quick still lifes (photo-realistic in the sense that they will be sourced from photographs with a shallow depth of field where much of what’s shown is out of focus). At about the same time as I decided to try this, Tom Insalaco happened to show me a catalog of Richard Maury’s exhibit at Forum Gallery in 2001. Which, of course, immediately pulled me in exactly the opposite direction: to continue painting images where everything is crisply rendered, as I’ve mostly done. I was fascinated by the still life Tom singled out, showing a few common objects illuminated by natural light presumably through one of his Italian home’s old casement windows. So, when I got home, I found what I suspected was the same catalog from a third-party seller on Amazon, and I ordered it. It arrived a couple days later, and, having studied it for a while, I’m humbled by Maury’s work.

I assume the catalog represents all of the work he completed from 1996-2001, as Robert Fishko suggests in his introduction. It isn’t surprising that he praises Maury so effusively. It wouldn’t faze me if you told me each of these fifteen paintings required a year to complete, yet Maury apparently dispatched them at the rate of about three per year, which is staggering given the level of exactitude.

On the cover, in his self-portrait, everything revolves around his two forearms and hands, shown resting on his slacks. They are a magician’s hands, given his technical skill in capturing them, utterly familiar, conveying as much personality and character as the face gazing at you from a little higher up. The color of the slack skin of a man in his mid-sixties, the veins, and most of all, the blond-looking hair just above his wrists—it’s all evoked so vividly, it makes you want to quit painting, out of respect. My favorite in the catalog, though, is his own masterful contribution to a sort of kitchen-sink realism most familiar to me from Antonio Lopez Garcia’s famous image, though in the Spanish painting, I believe it’s a bathroom sink. (I had a painting of my own kitchen sink on view this year in Augusta, Georgia, at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, and I’m familiar with more than one sink painted by Matt Klos.) This one is entitled Story, and there is nothing in the work that isn’t perfectly rendered in a light so utterly real that, as Fishko points out, it seems as if Maury is painting the air in the room. His spice shelf, jammed with jars of seasoning (aren’t all spice shelves crammed that way?), seem to indicate almost precisely how far each jar is away from the window in the way that it shines, as do all the assorted objects below them on the countertop. The hose from the faucet snakes over to what must be an ancient dishwasher. Nothing in this image dissolves into shadow—very little in Maury’s paintings disappear into the dark. There’s always enough ambient light to see detail in even the darkest areas. The Italian light seems to rest gently on everything in his home. The regularity of the patterns in the tile near the top—again, it’s stunning, and when you see that the painting’s scale is 21” x 27 ½”, your reaction amplifies from amazement to disbelief.

Maury is aesthetically akin to Lopez Garcia, but he’s warmer, more inviting, and his images aren’t nearly as austere; these paintings remind me as well of interiors and figures by John Koch, which impressed me when I saw them in the exhibition the New York Historical Society put together in 2001. In Italy, Maury works the same way as Koch did in New York City: constantly returning to different places in his own home and painting whatever he sees, or capturing his wife for a genre scene, or bringing a model in to sit for a nude portrait. I have to say I prefer the Koch nude I can see here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery to any of Maury’s, as beautiful as they are. When his figures are clothed though, Maury achieves a different intensity, partly I think because the fabric lets him capture subtle variations in texture and color, and the surface of the painting becomes more interesting. His self-portrait is something Durer would have liked. His nudes let me down a bit, the way Lennart Anderson’s figures do (and Braque’s, for that matter). Put a nude from these artists side-by-side with one of their still lifes and somehow the inanimate objects seem more charged with heightened perceptions and intricate feelings and moods. Inanimate objects in a Maury painting have their own personalities, so in a way his still lifes seem even more companionable than his rooms with a lone human figure. The objects in Story, full of humble dignity and character, engage the viewer in a way that his paid sitters don’t. They belong. The sitters are just passing through. You have a sense that Sherlock Holmes could have reverse-engineered the story of Maury’s entire life from the glimpse the painter offers of his own kitchen. Hence, I guess, his title.

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