In the Dark
Robert Lange Studios
On view through Oct. 31
151 E. Bay St.
Sean Clancy lives in a small two-bedroom apartment on 125th and Broadway, on the edge of Harlem. There are a few brushes and paints scattered around, but he keeps his home pretty tidy.
He has to. He's a big guy and there's little room to spare.
Such commitment to precision and clarity are what inspired Clancy's latest show at Robert Lange Studios. It's called In the Dark and it's a breathtaking series of realist oil paintings, featuring magnificent heroes and tragic heroines.
These works are teeming with inner life.
"He's such a romantic," Robert Lange says. "There's an epic feel to his show. When we scheduled it eight months ago, we wanted to be surrounded by the work. We've never had such a big show in our main gallery."
RLS is long and narrow, so visitors have no choice but to get up close to Clancy's figures — the largest is 53 by 84 inches. With images of that scale close to their noses, viewers feel they're part of the action.
In the case of "In His Sleep," that action could almost be a scene from 300. It's a riff on a dream sequence from The Iliad, where a general en route to aid the Trojans is murdered in his sleep before seeing the battlefield.
Using the literary scene as a starting point, Clancy has created an idyllic moment of his own. The general stands before a death-dark background, his outstretched hand holding a white rose, a cry for peace amidst the slaughter. In profile, he harkens back to classical Greek art and his muscular, bare-armed form gives the painting a Homer-erotic edge.
Clancy often paints dark backdrops and uses poems, stories, or mythological concepts as inspiration. "The Cherry Orchard" and "Fearless Knight" are both loosely based on The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser's myth-draped self-help guide for wannabe warriors. The shiny steel armor of the "Fearless Knight" stands out against a black background; the angle of his sword helps to break the painting up into pleasing diagonal shapes.
Both knights are on red carpets, adding a regal note but also reminding the viewer of the blood spilled in their chivalric wake. Deep, dark reds are used through much of In the Dark — a knife stands out against it ("Slumbering Cynthia"), bodies lie on it ("Self Portrait," "The Fairest Rose"), and in a sly wink to David's "The Death of Marat," an arm drapes from a bathtub, spilling red wine in "Dreamer of Love." The sanguine liquid seeps across a white tiled floor, messing up the pristine bathroom.
The sumptuous colors, subjects, and chiaroscuro give the series an overall feel that's somewhere between mid-Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art.
But there's a precision here that owes more to Caravaggio than Goya. Like Clancy's apartment, his paintings are neat and studiously arranged; as soon as he starts a painting, he knows how it's going to turn out.
"I try to be precise and make it look as real as possible," Clancy says.
Nevertheless there's a contrast between his Old Master oils and Robert Lange's glossy hyperrealism, which means there's room for both in the gallery. Perhaps Clancy's drawn to his source stories by their reassuringly dependable structure. He wants to explore looser techniques in the future, mixing that up with a couple of commissions (there are assured examples of his portraiture in this exhibition). Next summer he'll be ready for another show in an as-yet undecided venue — maybe one closer to home.
Until now he's avoided the postmodern-loving whirlwind of the New York art world. Judging by this show, however, he's certainly got the chops to survive there.