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James Vullo: Deconstructing Urbania in this Week's Artvoice

Friday, August 10, 2012

Read Jack Foran's review of James Vullo: Deconstructing Urbania in this week's Artvoice.

What is most interesting about James Vullo is how he takes from all directions, but makes what he takes his own, and gradually transitions over the course of a lifetime from blatantly imitative artist to unique artistic personality. All on show at the current Vullo exhibit, entitled Deconstructing Urbania, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

His main subject matter is Buffalo, the motley conglomeration of wood-frame residential to steel-support industrial architecture, all starting to crumble a little in the middle years of the last century, and the mood, somber, diffident, starting to crumble a little, too, perhaps—though maybe only the artist could see this—in the aftermath of a world war that worked like steroids on the local economy, but where the city and economy were headed from there wasn’t so clear and obvious.

Vullo lived in Buffalo all his life, with two major excursions to the world outside, the first when he served as an infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II, the second in 1960, when he won a slogan contest, the prize for which was a trip to Paris. He learned a lot about art on the Paris trip, but he was learning about art while in service, too. A delightful aspect of the present exhibit is a generous selection of drawings he did on the fly, as it were, in service, ranging from cartoons—one of a GI and wall-hanging drawings of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, the first two portrait drawings X-ed out, Hirohito still to go—to preliminary sketches for paintings he might later get to work on. Caricatures, too, a step or two up from cartoons. Including an imitation of a famous Leonardo da Vinci caricature drawing of a cluster of semi-grotesque Florentine street old guys. A large part of genius consists in knowing what to imitate.

In this regard—knowing what to imitate—as well as in regard to his staunch roots and ties to this region, probably the artist Vullo most persistently and assiduously studied and learned from and sometimes imitated was Charles Burchfield. Vullo’s Forgotten House, an unpainted clapboard abandoned solitary structure in an otherwise commercial/industrial milieu under louring skies, could be by Burchfield, as also could be his Elmwood and Utica, depicting that corner, looking down Elmwood, it looks like, on a rainy night, no vehicles or people in sight. Another painting strongly reminiscent of Burchfield in both style and spirit is Vullo’s Two Horses—frisking in the foreground, amid meadow tall grasses whipped by turbulent winds, under dark clouds presaging imminent storm. Actually, three horses, if you count the iron version charging across the background horizon, its column of black coal smoke rising to and blending with the storm clouds. It’s a picture teeming with the vitalist energies of nature and non-nature alike that are Burchfield’s signature motif.

But whereas Burchfield’s ultimate focus was the natural world in its manifest glory, Vullo’s is the built environment. Not so much the picturesque street architecture or even haunting—and possibly haunted—dilapidated dwelling structures both artists occasionally indulged in. Or even the extensive heavy industry artificial landscapes that as Western New Yorkers they could not ignore. But in Vullo’s case, most prominently downtown high-rise cityscape, which he tended to transform into an organized jumble of facades and associated geometrics, like a huge many-faceted jewel. The many-faceted aspect fit well with his interest sustained over decades in cubism in its various guises. His work after about 1950 has a characteristic cubist cast, occasionally venturing into the art world next-step school post-cubism, abstract expressionism. But he never abandons his original representational impulse. A late painting, from 1989, entitled Goldome, consists of a congeries of abstract geometrical forms reading as buildings mainly on account of, in juxtaposition to, the single non-abstract element emerging from among and behind the abstract forms, the clearly identifiable gold dome of the downtown (now M&T) bank

The earliest works in the exhibit—from the 1930s—are two gothic-sensibility paintings, one showing a central figure, or rather just face, that looks like a talented art student’s imitation of a James Ensor horror mask, the other an overly literal-minded applicant for the Ash Can School of gritty American realism, though with a decided surrealist nightmare quality. By the middle and through the end of his career, his work consists of freewheeling, graceful, elegant combinations of world art theoretical solutions and primal impulse representational art.

The James Vullo exhibit continues through August 26.