William John Whittemore, Charles C. Curran, 1888/1889, oil on canvas, 17 x 21 inches

Painted representations of palettes make me very happy. Artists can besmirch their carefully rendered image with blobs of gooey color as if it were an actual palette. Paint becomes a representation of itself as well as a reminder of the messy, undifferentiated origins of the crafted picture. Paint is both in the image and falling out of it.

In William John Wittemore’s portrait of Charles Courtney Curran, a palette tips into the picture almost as an extension of Curran’s body. His thumb lies across it to secure a collection of brushes ready for their turn at the brown canvas he is working on. One of these brushes seems to be touching the marble base of a nearby sculpture, as if it was independently painting a loose atmospheric abstraction. Curran is looking at his canvas and his gaze is carried to its destination along the leg of a naked female sculpture squatting beside him. He steadies his hand with a maulstick as he brushes the surface of the painting, but that same hand visually connects to the flexed foot of the sculpture to complete a circuit that connects eye to hand, hand to brush, brush to palette. This is a story about vision tangled with bodies. Curran peers through glasses but also though art history, embodied as a naked female. Her head has been cropped out of the picture but a bust in the upper left corner and a naked torso at the top center supplement the parts we cannot see. Curran’s lower parts are cropped out of the picture too and it looks like Whittemore is staging an all-too-familiar gendered pair; the carnality of a naked woman and the well dressed civility of an accomplished man.

I like thinking, though, that the painting makes a complete body out of dispersed heterogeneous parts, a complicated body constrained and subdivided by guardrails, pedestals, canvas edges, bowler hats and neckties. My intuition is that Whittemore and Curran were committed traditionalists, not in the business of questioning social or aesthetic conventions. But some artworks have the power to break free of their maker’s intentions. Is Whittemore picturing Curran, like Balzac’s Frenhofer, as an artist whose ambition and practiced skill have led him to make a sticky monochrome, the observable world collapsed into fecal shadow? Or maybe he’s portraying Curran making a portrait of his palette, a blank space of potential, waiting for wet colors to be squeezed out and smeared across it.

David Humphrey, Sculptor, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 54 inches

David Humphrey is a New York artist represented by the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery. An anthology of his art writing, Blind Handshake, was published by Periscope Publishing in 2010.