Studio Visit- Encounter with Virtuosity of Form and Function
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
An essay on the Sculpture of John Belardo- by Brian Keeler
Earlier this year, on a rainy April afternoon I had the priviledge of visiting the sculptural studio of John Belardo in Pine Plains, NY, which is a small town in the Hudson Valley Region east of Kingston.
My interest in his work derives from an appreciation that has steadily grown over the past several years. I became acquainted with John first through his involvement with the Hudson Valley Art League, as he served as the president of that organization from 2009 to 2016. I was in one of that organization's shows held at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. Eventually I became Facebook friends with John and was wowed by the incredible virtuosity expressed in his multiple figure ensembles. To me there was nothing else quite like them in the entire history of art. John has offered a caveat to that appraisal, by letting me know that there is a precedence for this unique genre of multiple figure sculptures. John says that Michelangelo’s late marble works of the Pieta and The Deposition bring this intertwinning of the human form to the canon of allegorical sculpture. And Rodin of course had multiple figure compositions like the Burghers of Calais. Bernini also has some masterful works, like Apollo and Daphne or Prosperina in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.
John’s work takes this unique genre in a new direction. And this following statement could only be construed as hyperbole, but I believe John’s work exceeds these masters of the human figure. I am a fan. Let me explain how my appreciation has deepened and developed.
I have a novel in mind about Renaissance Italy where the lead character is in the workshop of Verrochio, the sculptor and painter in Florence in the mid-quatrocento. The concept and inspiration of the novel is to view anew this workshop with Verrochio’s students, Leonardo, Perugino, Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi and others. As I plan to illustrate the work, I needed a sculptor whose work is connected to this august tradition and has similar themes of ancient myth and Biblical narrative. John’s work was a perfect fit.
So I have given myself a project that is inspiring and engaging for many reasons. To segue into the assignment, I have created several large charcoal drawings of some of the main scenes. Now with these drawings of John at work on his clay figurative ensembles I am making a study of his masterful creations while working towards the book project.
John quips to the readers- that he does not own striped paints. Ha! So thanks to John for allowing me to embellish this setting to support the narrative of setting him in a Florentine studio of the 15th century. So I have taken some liberties with his apparel to fit the setting.
I have not had a more rewarding project in some time. John has done all the heavy lifting so to speak, as he has created these works of beauty with the human anatomy articulated and defined with such skill. I have sketched from many sculptural works in museums in Europe and here in America and this is a continuance of that but with the added element of being inspired by a contemporary sculptor. The benefit for painters and draftsmen of studying figurative sculpture is that the human nude has been realized to a very high degree in most cases. When the works are in marble, it is even more of a plus as the sinews, musculature and general form are all easily viewed.
During the course of studying John’s work while making the four preliminary charcoal or conte drawings, I was continually amazed at the complexity, beauty and finesse. There is an Italian word that comes to mind that perfectly captures John’s work, sprezzatura, which means ease and flow or naturalness of execution. When in museums, visitors swish by everything in seconds or minutes at best. But to spend time drawing and painting a work, we are afforded many discoveries and rewards. For example, at one point. I could suddenly see a child’s hand emerging from below a figure, or notice the variety of scale used. This use of divergent scales recalled the hierarchical scale used in Renaissance paintings and sculpture to indicate relative importance. Then I would notice figures that appeared cadaver-like or of extreme age. And then I would see limbs with only the barest of flesh or tendons portrayed next to fulsome and youthful nudes.
I did spend a fair amount of time on this project and at one point my partner Linda noted that doing four preliminary drawings was more than is usual for me. When we recall a typical Renaissance studio however, we realize that any given major painting would require dozens if not hundreds of preliminary studies.
The reward that tops the other discoveries that occurred during this project was to appreciate how masterfully these ensembles combine several figures in swirling compositions. Again, I don’t think Rodin or Bernini did this. The nudes are twisting and undulating in wild dramas of form. I am recalling some precedent to the swirling and ascending nude compilations that may inform John’s work. "The Rape of the Sabines" by Gian Bologna in Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence is one.
There was a competitive undercurrent between sculptors and painters in Renaissance Florence and elsewhere that came to mind during this project. This friction between the two arts seems rather arcane, misplaced or even irrelevant today. But there are passages from Leonardo’s notebooks where he goes on at length explaining why painting is much more elevated and noble that the physical act of chipping marble or muddying ones hands with clay. A painting comes to mind by one of Giorgioni’s students, perhaps Palma Vecchio where he created a painting to illustrate the superiority of painting. In that work he shows a model from in front, and with a mirror situated behind, he shows a back view as well. His point is that painting can show two views at once, as expressed in this canvas, whereas one can only appreciate one façade at time with sculpture. Hmm, but one can easily walk around a marble to appreciate the three dimensional aspects. John offered that this division of the arts is sort of like Yankees versus the Reds Sox haggling, which will never be resolved.
I like John’s ideas and concepts as well as his technical skill. He was working on a large (9 foot high) figurative work of a theme from Greco-Roman Mythology- Dionysus. This is a commissioned piece that will eventually go to Cooperstown, NY where it will be displayed there to honor the life of an actor who recently passed away. This funerary monument is pertinent to the organization, The Cooperstown Theatre Festiva,l as Dionysus is the God of the theatre. John explain that Dionysus is masked as was the case in ancient Greece dramatic productions and this figure represents tragedy. Dionysus is holding in his outstretched hand the visage of woman who represents comedy. The dichotomy of the two theatrical genres is to underscore and point toward the aspiration of moving toward the ideal, the beautiful and truthful.
The standing figure of Dionysus is draped in a gauze-thin garment that allows us to appreciate the beauty of the form of this male God. I particularly enjoyed drawing the ribs as they were so wonderfully visible and skillfully articulated. We often think of sculptors and painters merely transcribing what is seen without realizing the interpretative and organizing necessities in these portrayals. I think of the Renaissance and Baroque statuary which took the depiction of the draped figure, often saints, into an art of its own.
John’s process is a fascinating story on its own. He begins rather abstractly, generally, if not in an inchoate manner with a very general impulse. As anatomically impressive as these creations are, he does not use models. He has, however, drawn from the model often over a long and productive career. So this direct observation of people and expressing this in drawing media comes to inform his sculpture. This approach of going from the general to the specific has corollaries to painters, as many of us work in a similar way. Just working with the torso alone is how he often begins allowing for the serendipitous and magical. Speaking of torsos in sculpture, we recall how the Belvedere Torso, a mere fragment from Roman antiquity informed many of the nudes of Michelangelo on the Sistine Ceiling and elsewhere.
For my painted version of John, I portrayed him working on a piece with a working title of “Chthonic.” This is a great word in itself, that already inspires and fires our imagination. It is of Greek orgin and alludes to the underworld or belonging to the underworld. John says that he often considers the internal dynamic represented. There is also an element in this concept of passions thwarted or buried. Also, there could be an affectionate benefic force at play to help and assuage. Other times there will be a contrast between conflicting urges or a struggle between polarities. I think many of us can relate to these struggles in our current times as we’ve just come through global pandemic and an extremely fractious and divisive political episode. The pose chosen for the painting appealed to me more than the drawing, as John is looking up as if addressing students. The pose also has an understated contrapposto – as he is looking one way with his hands and arms going the other.
Finally, another of the works that were in process in John’s studio, was a large horizontal grouping of figures on a religious theme from Genesis, an expulsion with Adam and Eve. We are talking high drama here, and one may think of Michelangelo’s painting on the Altar of the Sistine Chapel or Dante’s Divine Comedy also comes to mind.
So, you will hopefully see how the work of one artist can have an inspiring, informative and educative influence on another artist. John is on the faculty at Lehman College and at The New York Academy of Art so he must be inspiring many students and John’s work is in many public and private collections, I am sure the beneficial aspects of his work will inspire many for generations to come.
A video of the painting (at the top) in the drawing stage, it can be viewed here at this link;
A video of the final touches, and glazes:
To learn more about the work of John Belardo- go to his website at this link;