Joel Babb Beyond Nature and Culture

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   In the best of all possible world’s, every artist of significance would have their work collected and discussed in a monograph including 1) high quality color reproductions, 2) analysis of the evolution of the work by an insightful writer and 3) comments by the artist on his/her own work. In fact, very few contemporary artists enjoy this sort of attention in print.

   In my library, I have a Maine art bookcase that holds five shelves jammed with catalogues and books gathered over 34 years of writing about art and only a handful are hardcover monographs about individual artists, among them examinations of the art of Thomas Crotty, Connie Hayes, Eric Hopkins, Dahlov Ipcar, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz and Andrew Wyeth. Add to that list of properly published artists Joel Babb

Copley Plunge, 1990


   I had an opportunity to share my thoughts about Joel Babb’s incredibly complex and detailed urban landscapes of Boston and natural landscapes of Maine on this blog back in September 2009 on the occasion of an exhibition at Vose Galleries in Boston and subsequently at Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, about 30 miles from where Babb lives in rural East Sumner. Ten years ago, I spent time with him in Sumner to write a feature profile in another magazine and Babb is one of the 100 artists profiled in Maine Art New forthcoming from University of Maine Press in spring 2013.

Lily and Cypress, The Corkscrew Swamp, Florida, 2001

A couple of weeks ago an advance copy of Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb (University Press of New England, February 2013, $50) arrived in the mail accompanied by a letter from Babb. I have been looking at that hand-written letter almost as much as at the book in an effort to understand (or is it comprehend?) how Babb achieves such preternatural realism in his paintings.

   I believe we all basically understand the world in relationship to ourselves. The fact that I write for a living yet am cursed by nearly illegible handwriting makes me fascinated by Joel’s fine, elegant, even hand. I keep thinking that somewhere in his most basic ability to write legibly lies the secret to his meticulous illusions of cultural and natural landscapes.

Boston from the Prudential, 2005

Conceptualization tends to trump craftsmanship in contemporary art. Painstaking realism tends to be seen as an old fashioned virtue unless employed ironically. Joel Babb is one of the few painters I can think of, only Rackstraw Downes comes easily to mind, who applies photorealism to the modern world without irony or romanticism. His sheer talent is dazzling, and that is not something you can say about many serious contemporary artists.

   Nature & Culture contains a preface by novelist Anita Shreve, an introduction by curator Christopher Crosman, text by critic Carl Little, Babb’s own comments on some individual paintings, and an afterwards by scientist Bernd Heinrich.

   “Babb’s art speaks to me of consummate skill, focus, caring, and a seemingly infinite patience to process what what he has seen and transferred through the mind and hand, and to distill the essence of it on canvas,” writes Heinrich, one of America’s most articulate scientists.

   I mean no disrespect to Heinrich or any of these fine and astute writers, however, when I suggest that the essence of Joel Babb’s art ultimately escapes their words, as it does mine.

   Back in 2002, having seen a bit of Babb’s methodology first-hand, I tried to describe how he creates such amazingly detailed, panoramic paintings:

Gulf Hagas, Maine, 2011

“All of Babb’s paintings begin with direct observation. He starts by producing small oil studies based both on observation and photographs. In his most recent work he has scanned multiple photographic images of a scene into his computer in order to manipulate them into a photomontage he can use for reference. When he has composed a painting using photographs, he tiles off a canvas into a grid of squares and transfers the composition. Then he executes a complete tonal underpainting in shades of brown and yellow. At this stage in the process, his paintings resemble nature as seen through the yellow lenses of sportsmen’s sunglasses. Finally, he paints over the underpainting in oil, working anywhere from six to eight weeks on each major painting.”

   The dazzle of a Babb cityscape or landscape is that the viewer is able to see orders of magnitude more detail in his art than with the naked eye, a kind of brick-by-brick, leaf-by-leaf conjuring act. But the magic of a Babb cityscape or landscape is that he possesses the innate ability to 1) see with such clarity and 2) make manifest what he sees in colored oils. So much information rendered by hand is beyond nature and culture.



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