Most art students learn to appreciate art by studying its history. Thus they’re usually exposed to the figurative art of past centuries before they are to twentieth-century art, with its effusion of styles.
But some have a natural inclination for the avant garde. For example, jazz, with the homage it paid to old standards and show tunes, seemed too, well, straight, for this author when he was young. His gateway to its wonders, current and past, was John Coltrane.
Likewise, his portal into art was abstract expressionism, especially personal favorites Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline. In other words, if he falls for a figurative painter, that artist has got to be world class.
Which is exactly the direction in which 27-year-old Michael De Brito is headed. When a friend referred us to his website, it was instantly apparent that realism, already revitalized in recent years, had gotten another bracing infusion in De Brito’s work.
The copy on his site reveals his influences: “The canvases of Diego Velasquez, John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn.” There are hints of others, too, such as Edward Hopper.
Meanwhile, the website for De Brito’s one-man show (until May 4) at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York reads: “The vibrancy in his brushwork enlivens each small detail until our senses can almost feel the warmth of the room or smell the stew simmering on the stove.”
Yet, unlike most realists, De Brito doesn’t trace photographs projected on a screen: He draws — the old-fashioned way.
Come to think of it, as artist David Hockney made clear in his notorious book, “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters,” tracing too is the old-fashioned way. He found clues that some of the greatest Western painters, such as Ingres, VelÃ¡zquez and Caravaggio, utilized optics and lenses to create their classics, just as today’s artists use overhead projectors.
We asked De Brito what stayed his hand from resorting to this shortcut.
“I find there is no need to use projectors or tracing methods in my work given that the mistakes often make the work better. Sometimes using aids, you get so caught up in getting everything exact that you miss the main objective of the piece, which ultimately is communicating an idea to your viewer.
“Most of my works have figures in them but they are not always exact likenesses because that is not what I’m trying to achieve. It’s more about capturing a moment than really getting something photo realistic. I like my work to have heavy brushwork that gives the piece texture and depth.”
De Brito may have gotten the heavy brushwork from Sargent, whose paint application was as lush as the lifestyles of those he painted. Meanwhile, we can’t gauge the accuracy of his likenesses because we don’t know his subjects. But despite his disdain for “getting everything exact” and “getting something photo realistic,” you would have thought De Brito traces because of how advanced his drafting skills are.
In fact, his approach contrasts with many realists. To them, the subjects they trace serve as blank slates for them to decorate and accessorize with their personal gestures. De Brito, instead, cracks open his subjects’ characters and captures the moment like a camera, or like photo-realism in the ideal. It’s tough to disagree with the Ettinger gallery’s copy: “It is life. . . honest, immediate and intimate.”
To borrow another passage from the artist’s site: “The result is the power of confidence â€“- a final brush mark made at the very first trained stroke.” First time, only time? If true, that kind of immediacy is pretty Zen, no joke intended.
What’s equally as Zen is what’s missing from his paintings: egotism â€“- or even ego, as in self. No mean feat, especially for someone as young as De Brito. After all, more than ever in today’s competitive art world, a painter feels pressured to impose his personality writ large upon his work.
The copy on De Brito’s site alludes to this: “His personality influences his subject matter, but not in an ironic or sarcastic way. Instead, he prefers to capture the beauty of his subject.”
It’s true that he avoids the Scylla — so endemic to modern artists — of irony. He also avoids the Charybdis of sentimentality. As the gallery copy says of his work: “It is not idealized or romanticized.” How little energy is left over for irony or sentimentality in his painting is a measure of how immersed he is in his subjects — his extended Portuguese-American family and his friends.
“For me having a connection to my subjects, like my family, helps give my work depth and meaning. I believe painting what you know assists in making good art. Most people can identify with at least one of the characters portrayed in the paintings. Some even feel as though it resembles their own family. To me that is a great achievement when the viewer feels as though they are apart of the work.”
To create without feeling compelled to stamp your imprint on your art at every turn requires a secure person. Like De Brito — the product of a family that, in turn, he cares enough about to make the main subjects of his art.