Darkness and light

Thomas Insalaco, Swimmer

Paying Homage, a large solo exhibition of Thomas Insalaco’s oils at the Oxford Gallery here in Rochester is well worth checking out either in person or at least online. I wish James Hall had posted more of the work on the gallery’s website, because it’s all absorbing, and it consistently reflects a mind and heart obsessed with fundamental mysteries. Insalaco is an example of an artist who doesn’t seem to have ever consciously sought commercial success, obsessively exploring imagery and techniques that point toward a sense of what I would call spiritual unknowing—one canvas seems to show you an image of the artist himself as a wanderer with a backpack, lost in an unfamiliar world. Others evoke an aura of darkness dispelled or relieved by moments of grace, images that shine with a grave sense of beauty. Caravaggio’s presence can be felt throughout Insalaco’s work, and yet some paintings glow with a very un-Baroque light of day, or, in one case, probably my favorite image in the show, the electronic light of what’s likely an iPhone held by a young girl whose profile is lit by the touch screen you can’t quite see in her hands. The image has the casual feel of an everyday domestic moment caught with delicacy and love, and even though electronic media seems a menace to the average human attention span, there’s something hopeful in that young face connecting with other people, other worlds, through a tiny illuminated window. You see her gazing into that glow and think, things are going to be all right, after all. His female nudes, though, might be the most impressive work here: classic, sober views of the actual human body in all its awkward and imperfect beauty, and these images, which have a poignant gravity that seems ubiquitous in his paintings, make you feel the humble vulnerability of what it means to stand naked, alone and on view. Yet, above that psychological dimension, these nudes do what figurative painting ought to do: make you see what a marvel the human anatomy is, more marvelous than any representation of a particular body will ever quite capture.

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