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People's Painter

Art Review


Published June 14, 2006 at 4:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT:Al Salzman: Paintings and Drawings. Fletcher & Pickering rooms, Fletcher Free Library, Burlington. Through June.

ARTWORK:"Subway to Vermont Triptych" by Al Salzman

Strangely shaped artworks greet visitors to the Fletcher and Pickering rooms in Burlington's Fletcher Free Library this month. The 18 oval figurative paintings, 55-by-31 inches, and 13 round, 44-inch-in-diameter drawings were executed over a 10-year period by the multifaceted Fairfield artist Al Salzman. What may not be immediately obvious is that his picture planes are classically inspired, both in composition and content.

In Greek mythology, the master builder Daedalus constructed wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape their imprisonment on the isle of Crete. Salzman's "Falling" refers to that story, as two winged male figures seem to tumble through a cerulean blue sky and white clouds. The nearly Baroque composition presents a contorted Icarus with a damaged wing slicing into a sapphire-hued sea. Yet above the clouds, a peaceful bird appears at the top of the oval, in contrast to this human calamity.

In a telephone interview, Salzman mentioned that viewers often think of the bird in "Falling" as a dove symbolizing the spirit of God. Not so. He was actually thinking of "The Lark Ascending" by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Such personal, rather than predictable, associations are a hallmark of Salzman's paintings.

"Subway to Vermont Triptych" is a dreamlike narrative populated by a bizarre assortment of musicians, commuters, cops, and bearded orthodox Jews. Each of the three panels has beautifully controlled light, effectively describing flickering subway shadows. The content crystallizes as Salzman transforms the New York City subway into a vision of Holocaust freight cars hauling workers through an underground bedlam.

In 1992, Salzman was a Progressive Party candidate from Franklin County for the Vermont Senate; his social concerns find their way into many of the show's images and poems. To the right of "Subway to Vermont Triptych," an excerpt of his posted poem "Tiger Moran" reads, "Eat your oats and work for bosses / work and sweat like fuckin' horses / sleep -- wake up -- eat oats again / Drink your coffee, hide your pain. . . ." Salzman's paintings often have a social-realist air -- his negative spaces of dark blue and gray are reminiscent of Socialist Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.

Salzman's painting technique is also influenced by his 25 years as an art teacher in St. Albans and in New York City-area public schools. He mixes from only eight colors of cheap tempera paint, typical of what's used in classrooms. But he isn't naïve about materials, and separates tempera applications with clear layers of acrylic matte medium. Like egg tempera, water-based tempera can be very brittle, so Salzman paints on panels that are less absorbent and also make cracking less likely. But if his medium is unusual in fine art -- perhaps even unsound -- it does create unique surfaces and vibrant, rich colors.

Salzman's round drawings, which he refers to by the Renaissance term of tondos, are technically more pedestrian -- just charcoal on cardboard. Each is entitled a "Humandala" and presents an array of figures organized into gravity-free circles and drifting around in well-composed spaces. Babies, musicians, boxers and bathers populate these "Humandalas." Each represents a cross-section of contemporary society.

Salzman's oval compositions often employ the Renaissance device of four-point perspective, and his round charcoal drawings seem to have as many as six vanishing points in certain passages. He acknowledges being schooled in those rarified concepts, but discounts their validity in his works. Salzman is more intuitive than intellectual in designing his paintings and drawings. His artistic perspective, as evidenced by this courageously eccentric show, is utterly unique.

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