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Bruno Surdo: Illuminated Images

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Not every artist has the patience to practice classical figurative painting. And not every figurative painter has the patience or charity to teach their craft to others. Bruno Surdo, a Chicago native, knew that he was interested in the formal perfection of Renaissance art at an early age. Pursing this growing passion, Surdo began formal training at the Liceo Artistico di Bari, while in Italy during his teenage years.

Collected and exhibited widely, Surdo's work has explored the human figure as a conduit for his musings on the metaphysical, arcane, and psychological. Bruno Surdo is currently represented at Ann Nathan Gallery, in Chicago, and "Presidential Gala: Bruno Surdo" is the University of Saint Francis' season opening exhibition. Surdo is also the founder and director of the School of Representational Art (SORA) in Chicago, a private atelier teaching classical fine arts, and has been teaching there since it was formed in 1992.

Built off of an impressionistic understanding of color, old master sense of design and composition, and near naturalistic formality, Surdo's images are meant to instantly connect with and shake the viewer's psychological equilibrium. Be it through an orgiastic mass of bodies or the sublimity of a thirty-five foot long oil painting, Surdo's grasp of the Baroque is always palpable. The heavy handedness of some of his imagery follows the old master allegorical practices of the past. Surdo's images are meant to tap into the commonly held symbols and mythologies in our culture, skewing them, and using them to challenge or educate the viewer. One example of this is the intricately composed "The Right to Bear Arms", an image of over a dozen nude figures writhing in agony over the death of one figure by the gun held by a man at the top of the composition. Another is Surdo's unusual crucifixion, "Salvation", which includes all of the key Christian elements of Christ on the cross, but in a more than human scale, cherry red blood on near white skin, and the Christ-figure in mid-fall off of the cross, which the crown of thorns falling to the ground.

During the exhibition's corresponding lecture, Surdo spoke about his history of the logistics which accompany his practice. Because of Surdo's strong classical background, he obsessively makes drawing studies, full compositional drawings, color studies, and sometimes precisely lit three dimensional models of his images, to render their forms. This extended to the point where, when attempted a surreal still-life, he strung multiple objects to make them look as though they were hovering so that he could paint them from life.

Surdo then spoke of the importance that photography now plays in his work, as it allows him to work with dozens of models for his paintings. This allows him to position each of his models as he chooses, obtain reference images, and them compose the final images, turning oil painting into a manual photoshop. While many classically trained figure painters will look down upon the use of photography as reference, the scale of Surdo's endeavors make it a necessity. "Sermon on the Mount" alone has over 200 figures with the image, each a unique model who Surdo brought to his studio for reference images. As Surdo said during the lecture, "I like huge productions."

However, unlike many other figurative painters using photography as a means to paint, Surdo looks past the utilitarian capabilities and into the conceptual capacity of the camera. In images like "Progression", Surdo references Muybridge's photographic studies of anatomy from the late 19th century. This art historical connection to photography simultaneously bridges his work with Francis Bacon, another acknowledged influence, and his heavy, psychological figures which also use Muybridge's studies as an inspiration. These conceptual details add greatly to the depth of Surdo's work, beyond the formal control he illustrates in each image.

In other images, like "Pray," "Illumination," and the multiple-yard masterpiece "Tragedy, Memory, Honor," Surdo uses a much more loose, and in places, abstracted form of representation. Surdo explained that as his practice has evolved, he has often tried to push his classical background by moving into more surreal and even abstract expressionistic styles, in unison with figures. "Pray" is an image of a cultured woman, wearing only an intricately beaded headress, hands clasped in a pistol-like pantomime, in front of a gesturally painted heavily graffitied wall which nearly becomes a DeKooning, or Arshile Gorky background when contrasted by a human form. In "Illumination," Surdo actually covers the figure in a caccoon of white whips of paint, placed like a web of silken threads throughout the picture plane, but concentrating on the main figure.

"Tragedy, Memory, Honor", Bruno's masterpiece, is described by him as "the culmination of his work up to that point in time" taking more than four and half months to complete. This monstrous painting is composed on multiple panels, and includes pieces of debris from the ruins of the twin towers in New York City after the events of 9/11. This image contains the least naturalistic painting style of this entire exhibition, with a great deal of the total image being the abstracted painterly marks representing smoke and debris floating through the air. Surdo's characters are struggling, mourning, saving, dying, and living all through this piece. It is an accurate portrait of a city and a people left in quick ruin after an unspeakable tragedy.

Bruno Surdo's classical skill, and his deep set knowledge of the symbols which drive our culture, make his images powerful, common, and subversive all at once. The duality he explores in his images turn them into totems of their own dual nature. "I challenge my viewers to examine my work." Surdo said. Like any good piece of art, poetic, visual, or musical, it takes a keen understanding to translate some of the meaning hidden in Surdo's images, be they mythological references, a checkered floor, the mixing of art historical periods, or the noticing of skewed universal symbol.

Presidential Gala: Bruno Surdo
September 10- October 23, 2011
Weatherhead Gallery
University of Saint Francis, School of Creative Arts
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