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Portraits of people and their pain, expressed by overlays of text, were the subject of Edward Epstein’s “Insult to Injury” exhibit last month at the University City Arts League. Epstein seems to have his fingers in a number of pies, networking with lots of people and becoming a presence in the art community. I caught up with Schenectady, N.Y., native Epstein, 39, last week at the 40th Street Artists in Residence headquarters, where he runs the program and has a studio. I asked him a few questions about his art and the program. Here’s how it went (image, “Marybeth,” a portrait of Epstein’s wife; the words read, “You were nice until you married that Jew;” I’m especially fond of the horns. In all of these portraits, the words are reverse painted on the glass. The best of them are deeply personal or metaphoric.):

LR I notice most of your portraits in “Insult to Injury” were of women. How come?

EE Yeah, out of 18, five were men. I’m not sure what the explanation is, but a lot of the people who volunteered know my wife. My wife, Marybeth, teaches in the Graduate School of Education at Penn, and the stereotypes of schools of education is they have more women than men (image, “Lee,” with inscription “I didn’t vote for you”).

Two of the men who posed were tenured professors. In academic departments everywhere, there’s an imbalance in the sexes [i.e. the ones with tenure are more likely to be male].

The project is asking each person to give some insult given to them, and that is part of the work. Some people were more forthcoming than others:. Some said, Insults just bounce off of me. Then they [remembered] some pretty nasty things that got said to them. [While they sat for their portraits] …the conversation would go to their lives and what they were doing. I got to know some people better by doing this.

LR Since they were live portraits, how did you capture the sad expressions.

EE That may just be me. The room was kind of empty. I used natural light coming through the windows. There’s a sadness about the place that may have contributed to that (image, “Pam” with inscription “You’re dead in the water”).

LR What inspired the subject?

EE It took a while to come to me. Over the summer, on a trip to South Africa Marybeth and I had taken (I was there as a tourist taking care of Zoe) some of the ironies about life there rubbed off on me. In the central square in Pretoria, people were just milling around–milling around statues of their former oppressors. …I was thinking about insulting things that had been said to me. So I thought, what if I put words right on people’s faces.

I have a self-portrait in the series, with the words, “Every bit the last minute replacement.” The words were on a student’s evaluation [of me] when I was teaching at San Antonio College. I knew who the student was (image, “Edward,” showing the artist as a younger man).

Now I sort of laugh about it, but I was thinking about things said deliberately to injure, and thinking about the …faces themselves.

LR You paint in a traditionally realist sort of style. Why?

EE The short explanation is, I like to do that. I enjoy representational art. In graduate school, one critique I got was, “What does what you’re doing have to do with today?” and called it Social Realism. At that time, I was painting sort of heroic-looking forms. When you apply traditional technique, traditional European art, to things that are very contemporary and new, what about the distance between the subject matter and the technique, what can be exploited there, what can be made meaningful?

LR Can you talk a little about the themes in your work?

EE The themes emerge from what I see out there. In “Delaware Vistas” (see post), when I first came to town, one of the first sights I saw were the big oil tanks on Rt. 76. That’s what everybody seems if them com in via the airport. You can’t miss it. I thought, I have to do something with it.

Then, during a residency in the Catskills, the irony of things [the landscape and the big oil tanks for example] got put together. I want my art to have some of the text of how the mind combines things.

I did another series when I was in Atlanta called “Monuments.” I love the Greeks… and Piranesi. Imagined monuments with inscriptions like, “You can’t come in because you’re a girl.” What if inscriptions on buildings reflected the real rules and power relationships (image, “Threshold”)?

LR What’s your title at 40th Street AIR?

EE The title that I call myself is the resident coordinator. I have a studio space in here and coordinate things. The 40th Street AIR started when I first came into town a few years ago.

The genesis of AIR/new AIR residents

Epstein recounted how then Penn President Judith Rodin, in a conversation with Mary Beth, suggested that Epstein meet with people in Facilities and Real Estate, which had space around 40th Street that they were hoping could be put to some creative use. Epstein came up with a proposal and the program has just announced its third round of artists in residence:

Linda Goss, storyteller/Gretchen Shannon, painter (Linda and Gretchen will
collaborate)
Jill Maio, sculptor
Alex Paik, painter
Kate Stewart, painter, mixed media artist
Elysa Voshell, book artist

Now showing at AIR


While I was at 40th Street AIR, I took a look at current AIR resident Delia King’s solo exhibition of reverse glass paintings, which runs through Nov. 9 (image, “Jessica”).

I’ve been watching King’s work for the past couple of years, since I met her selling her art on the sidewalk on a First Friday. The work is getting more complex, using the glass to fuller effect, with of layers, patterns superimposed and juxtaposed in more and more surprising ways. The content has also taken a leap, juxtaposing street and interiors, pattern and realism.

One of the other nice things about this show was a display of work in progress, where you could see the complexity of King’s process. I can’t wait to see where she goes with it next (image, “Carla, Elgin and Shontay”).

AIR resident Jessica Doyle’s solo exhibition will run Nov. 11 through Dec. 7.

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