Bruce Kurland (1938-2013 ), Hyacinths and Dobson Fly, 1981; oil on masonite, 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches (Frame: 14 x 9 15/16 inches); Purchased, 1984
Ran Webber Remembers Bruce Kurland
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Bruce Kurland (1938 - 2013), friend and fellow painter, was a magically direct artist and person, deeply attuned to nature as well as contemporary visual allusions. He studied painting at the Art Student's League in NYC from 1959 -1961 and at the National Academy, School of Fine Arts from 1961-1963. Bruce began exhibiting his still-life paintings at galleries in NYC in the mid-1960's. Later, his work was represented by Joan Washburn, Claude Bernard and Victoria Munroe. Today many of Bruce's paintings are held in private collections throughout the U.S., Asia, and Europe, as well as in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American Art, the Burchfield Penny Art Center and several university collections. Kurland's paintings are informed by European Still-Life genre painting and influenced especially by such historical practitioners as the Dutch, Carel Fabritus (mid-1600s), a student of Rembrandt; also by the 18th Century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and by the 19th Century Italian painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi. Bruce Kurland will be judged as a brilliant 20th Century master of the Still-Life genre.
Another friend and fellow painter who knew Kurland, Brent Scott, began to call him "The Monster." It was assumed that Brent meant that Bruce was a "giant" among artists, so masterly in his technique as to conjure feelings of fear, awe, and cautious respect from other artists and viewers. His lusciously crafted oil paintings and masterly watercolors represented their own natural world of meaning and beauty. Kurland is said to have remarked, "In my paintings is a little world with which I can do anything I want." The painted surfaces of his Still-Lifes glow from within, like precious jewels and his subject matter is poignant with iconic metaphors exploring universal mortality and modern decay. To me his paintings were memorials to death, decay and the sublime beauty of nature. In particular, I remember one painting depicting a vintage pale green Coca-Cola bottle, painted to look monumental, serving as a flower vase for a magnolia branch with blossoms and leaves. Draped over the branch and the bottle's glass lips was an elongated, almost dripping piece of raw bacon. The objects were all dynamically balanced within a dark enigmatic volume of space. I remembering thinking that the painting revealed to me a sense of Bruce's Jewishness with its reverence for life, beauty, and mortality.
Bruce moved from NYC to Curriers, NY, to be free of the urban environment and to find inspiration in nature. Bruce was an avid and keen outdoorsman, drawing his life's energy and visual inspiration from activities such as hunting and fishing. Suzanne Ross, an artist and mutual friend, introduced me to Bruce over a meal. She had told me about a painter she had met who painted a house fly, framed 3 inches by 3 inches, so realistically that she was afraid she would get germs from it and that it could actually fly away. When I finally met Bruce, we bonded like two young boys who found out that each shared a fondness for the same "dirty" unmentionable things of nature and females. We laughed and bonded as “birds of a feather.” Once, Bruce cooked a Brown Trout and Brook Trout especially for me at his country home/studio in Curriers. He wanted to share with me the difference in the contrasting tastes. Later that day, Bruce, Suzanne Ross and I romped and frolicked playfully with Bruce's three daughters, Hanna, Yetta, and Justine under a large ancient Willow tree equipped with an old rickety swing. In the field beside the house, the old wooden boards of the swing were hung from a large branch with frayed and weathered ropes. The views across the way, on any side, were of planted fields stretching to the horizon. Several old red barns and storage silos stood slightly askew a mile or two down the gravel road where the next neighboring American Gothic style house sat on the next hill a mile and a half away. My memories of this time remind me significantly of the idyllic images of renown Photographer Justine Kurland, his youngest daughter. I also remember him assembling and binding trout fishing flies in his studio where a mysterious gray-brown atmosphere pervaded the country room and made everything look as if it existed in Chiaroscuro. The room contained numerous, dimly lit, hand-carved duck decoys, fishing gear, wading boots, hunting clothes and a 12 gage shotgun leaning against a board wall. That same feeling and quality of light existed in many of his paintings. His studio was always dark and smoky except for the intense contrasting light coming from a window facing north. It was here by the sash window that he sat for endless hours, smoking and crafting his oil on hardboard paintings. I remember my experiences with Bruce as being very memorable and inspirational, and I also felt I was somehow transported back in time a century or two.
I used to drive out to Curriers from Buffalo, NY to fill jugs of water from his well; that was, if I agreed to not bother him while he painted. I was there to gather and drink the healing well water, not to spy on him; although he may have had a smidgeon of doubt that I might sneak up behind him to watch him paint. Bruce did not like anyone seeing an unfinished painting. Another memory is when Bruce chastised me for not understanding nor using the "principles of painting" in my work; Bruce was a very scientific painter who used all of the established classical fundaments of realistic and trompe l' oeil still-life painting. One has to keep in mind that he was painting in a very European tradition. About the same time, in NYC, the rebellious Abstract Expressionists were throwing "the principals of academic painting" off to the side. Bruce's formal academic technique and subject matter were not part of the American Avant-Garde, but he was not affected by it in the least. He had strong feelings about that. As a man, Bruce was a very emotional individual tempered by his extreme passion, discipline and the technique of his method of painting. He was a master and his paintings are in a league with the great masters of the Still Life genre. The many works of art he has left behind are profound in their symbolism and emit their own raison d"etre. His paintings are primarily remarkable for their beauty and Bruce is remarkable for having painted them and given them to the world. Bruce and I both agreed that much of contemporary art lacks one essential classical element—"Beauty." Conceptual ideas alone, no matter how clever or profound, seem dead without Beauty as a major fundamental.
Although, my work is not at all in the same genre as Bruce's fine oil paintings, there was a very brief time, when Bruce and I influenced each other's technique and subject matter. He painted several paintings reminiscent of the collage work I was experimenting with at that time. Bruce thought my painting had a somewhat humorous aspect. During that period he painted a bi-pedal (strolling) dill pickle, In another painting that I remember, he depicted a branch of Magnolia blossoms by collaging printed images of glamorous female lips representing Magnolia petals. He used white lead to adhere the printed lips onto the gessoed ground of the hardboard. I thought that it was his genius at work to include contemporary visual motifs using his masterly luscious painted surfaces. Bruce was able to achieve these jewel like surfaces by using an oil painting medium called Megilp which historically is a mixture of mastic varnish and an oil medium. Sometimes the oil medium is linseed oil cooked with white lead. It allows the oil paint to have a relatively short drying time, have a glossy surface (or a dull surface by adding wax), and it is easy to paint with. It especially allows the artist to paint long thin, distinct lines (example: hair) when hair is called for, and it allows very thin transparent layers (washes) to be built up as the painted surface. This layering allows for a surface appearing to have depth. Bruce often had to wait long periods for one layer to dry before applying another, even when using the Megilp medium. This was to the chagrin of one collector/patron who paid Bruce a monthly stipend in order to claim his output for an agreed upon period. The patron/collector felt Bruce's output was doggedly slow particularly while their agreement lasted. The patron felt slighted by the fact that he only took 15 masterpieces away in the deal. I had the pleasant and daunting task of choosing the frames for each painting. Bruce vehemently objected to any frame that was covered with gilt or painted gold and inevitably when I see his work framed at museums they are almost always framed in gold. He preferred black or dark gray. I guess his patron/collector felt that if Bruce had been an Abstract Expressionist he would have walked away with more than twice as many paintings. Bruce's output was on average between 5 -12 paintings per year.
Bruce's work influenced many artists around him in the way they saw nature. As for me, he got me out in Nature, enjoying it for the first time in my life. Also, he had a profound influence on my work. For a short time, I tried to paint like him and maybe that was what he found amusing at the time. He used to chuckle when he'd see one of my paintings, but never dismissed my output. I never took it as an insult because sometimes we'd both laugh together. It meant a great deal to me that Bruce had once recommended me as an artist of note in Western New York to a nearby museum. After a short while, we each went back to using our own visual vocabulary. Bruce went onward stressing the mortality of nature, its vulnerability to time, and the surface effects of aging and change. Unfortunately, I did not get to see what Bruce painted during his final years. Through a mutual friend, I was kept informed of what Bruce’s artistic output was and how he was doing in general. I did know that he was sick with cancer for several years and suffered much in the process.
Ran Webber, Buffalo, NY, December 31, 2013
Ran Webber, a Buffalo Artist and designer, moved to Buffalo in 1974 from Niagara falls, NY. In 1975 he opened/operated Gallery Wilde on Franklin Street. He became known for his large Super Graphic murals throughout Allentown. In 1976 he was hired by the Allentown Association to write a guide book and history of the neighborhood called The Allentown Book, A village Within a City. Webber also worked for the city as a "Artist in Residence' under a CETA grant. Since the 1970's ran has shown his paintings in many local, national and international exhibitions. Also, over the years he has worked as a technical Illustrator, draftsman as well as an architectural and engineering designer. In recent years he has been responsible for proposing a Green Adaptive Reuse Project, called Skyway to the Future, which would re-engineer and develop the Buffalo Skyway by turning the structure into a multi-use building featuring residential, commercial, recreational, civic and hi-Tech uses such as a Great Lakes Aquarium and a gallery row. He states that numerous Green and Environmental Technologies could be showcased and that the new building could serve well as a Great Lakes Environmental and Green Technology Center creating hundreds of service, maintenance, commercial as well a high paying technology and engineering jobs. Webber also sees a Green Roof Promenade featuring commercial vendors and a trans Inner/Outer Harbor Tram System as an integral part of the new Signature Skyway Concept.