WHAT THEY SAW IN EACH OTHER
Before he ever met Robert Civello, figurative artist Robert Bunkin--who describes himself as "a painter of people"-- knew he wanted to paint Civello's portrait. The idea suggested itself to Bunkin a few years ago, when he attended the first artist studio tour at Bay Street Landing, the waterfront condominium development in St. George where Robert Civello lives and works.
St. George painter Robert Civello, as photographed by Dan Icolari, left; and as painted by Robert Bunkin, right (photo by Coco Martin).
When Bunkin entered Civello's living/workspace as part of the studio tour, he was struck by the Buddha-like figure seated in front of a wall of windows. The Buddha-like figure was Civello, of course, but what Bunkin saw was not simply a figure.
He also saw a composition in which the figure was at least partly in shadow yet framed in light. The composition, Bunkin explained to me, suggested a classical method that Goya, among others, used, called contre-jour, meaning, to paint against the day, against the light, almost to paint shades of darkness in light.
Bunkin was intrigued by the possibilities and the challenge, and he proposed to Civello that they paint each other's portraits. There was a practical aspect to the arrangement as well. "Artists who paint portraits are always trying to avoid paying model's fees," said Bunkin, "so I was really glad when Robert agreed to the idea." He'd undertaken the same sort of collaboration twice before with little success. But with Civello, it worked.
A HUMAN LANDSCAPE
For Robert Civello, the details of form, physiognomy and setting are important to portrait-painting, but what the St. George artist seeks to create is not a faithful reproduction of his subject's appearance on canvas. What he's after, Civello told me, is an evocation of the personality of his subject through the details of complexion, features, dress, setting--and something else more felt than seen. Call it creative intuition.
West Brighton painter Robert Bunkin, as photographed by Dan Icolari, left; and as painted by Robert Civello, right.
The very quotable Mr. Civello told me it took him a lifetime to paint Robert Bunkin's portrait. By which he meant that it took a lifetime to develop his specialized kind of discernment.
Two of the things he's learned, Civello says, are that (a) "A portrait isn't forever; it's a painting, a moment in time"; and that (b) "Human beings aren't portraits; they're landscapes. My paintings are guides to those landscapes."
TWO CONCEPTIONS OF PORTRAIT-PAINTING.
The difference between the two north shore artists is as pronounced in their workstyles as in their approach to portraits. Civello needed only two sittings with Robert Bunkin--the first, about 45 minutes; the second, about a half hour, followed by one day of studio work to, in Civello's words, "dense up" the canvas. Plus lots of time viewing and studying it.
Robert Bunkin's requirements, like Civello's portrait itself, were more complex: much more time, many more sittings--partly because Bunkin usually has several painting projects underway at once. But Robert Civello didn't mind taking the extra time. He found Bunkin stimulating to talk to--and instructive to observe at work.
Despite all the differences in their approaches and styles, the two formed a friendship during the course of their collaboration. And they produced two strong, distinctive portraits to add their bodies of work.
ROBERT BUNKIN's work was most recently shown in the Staten Island Museum's Juried Exhibition, which closed on May 31.
ROBERT CIVELLO's work will be on view throughout the summer in "Three Traditions of Painting," an exhibition at the Newhouse Gallery of Snug Harbor Cultural Center. The show closes on August 23.