A sampling of pop surrealism: Two Northampton exhibits, including one by tattoo artists, offer a wide range of art

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 12:31 PM

Ever wonder what tattoo artists get up to when they’re at home?

Well, a good number of them from this region are involved in different kinds of art — painting, drawing, photography, sculpture — that’s now on display at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery on Main Street.

And in a nice case of serendipity, William Baczek Fine Arts, just a couple hundred yards down the street, has opened a show by a painter who shares something of an affinity with the artists now on exhibit at A.P.E.

“Lucky Us? Lucky You!” at the latter gallery showcases the work of 23 artists who work at Lucky’s Tattoo & Piercing, which has studios in Northampton, Easthampton and Cambridge.

On a recent Friday evening, about three dozen people braved a sudden downpour to visit A.P.E. for an artists’ reception and check out an exhibit that features a wide range of work, from surrealist and pop-art flavored paintings and drawings to some detailed pastel paintings that could pass for oils.

Also present: a pretty consistent sense of humor.

“Three Fools Listening to the Whispers of a Cat,” for instance, a pastel painting by Ian Healy, presents three casually dressed men hovering around a black cat perched on a short stone wall, all seeming in thrall to the animal, which has one paw raised in the air as if to emphasize a particular point.

The lush colors and formal backdrop of the work, meanwhile, seem to echo classical European paintings.

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Healy, a co-curator of the exhibit, says he came to tattoo work in his late 20s after studying fine arts and art history for about seven years, in particular European painters from the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Art can come in a lot of different forms, whether you’re working on skin, on canvas or paper, or in some other way,” said Healy, who works out of Lucky’s Easthampton studio. “I like to bring my different experiences to all my work.”

Patrick Macdonald, also a co-curator of the A.P.E. exhibit, says he and Healy had approached the gallery with the idea of hosting “a community art show that could be for everyone, and that could show this other artistic side” of the staff at Lucky’s.

“We’re really grateful that [A.P.E.] saw the value in hosting the show,” said Macdonald, who noted that he and Healy solicited artwork both from tattoo artists and support staff from Lucky’s. “In some cases I learned something about my co-workers I’d never known before.”

Macdonald, who’s been doing body art for over 15 years, and for more than a decade in the Valley, has contributed a number of photographs to the exhibit. One captures a rabbit, frozen late at night on an otherwise empty sidewalk in downtown Northampton.

Another artist from the Easthampton studio, Trudie Kaiser, brings three intriguing artworks to the A.P.E. show: two oil paintings and a pencil on board drawing, “Self-Portrait, Untitled,” that depicts a woman whose long, cascading hair mingles with flora on the edge of the portrait and a bird that rests on her left hand.

Hopefully, says Macdonald, the exhibit will remind people that tattoo art is just that — art — and that the artists who paint with needles at work might well be using paintbrushes, pencils, and other tools during their free time.

As exhibit notes put it, “At Lucky’s almost everyone has a visual or musical artistic pursuit outside of the work they do in our studios. We are excited to showcase the way they express themselves outside of the realm of body art.

“Lucky Us? Lucky You!” runs through Sept. 25 at A.P.E.

From Latvia with love

Just across the street from Lucky’s Northampton studio, William Baczek is hosting his third solo exhibition of Latvian painter Jana Brike, who blends images of nature, young women and girls, and the cycle of life in a unique and sensual way.

In a recent interview, Baczek said he discovered Brike’s work on Instagram several years ago and was quickly taken by her bold use of color, her technical abilities, and the themes of her work, including images from Latvian folklore.

He sees Brike as being “on the periphery” of pop surrealism, with her oil paintings depicting life-like figures that are usually found in dreamlike settings, which is much the case in her new show, called “Heartsong.”

In “Moonlight Dance,” for instance, several women, black and white, some wearing slips and some naked, walk through a moonlit woodland side by side with skeletons; some of the figures, including the skeletons, wear crowns of flowers, which also hover in the air.

As Baczek explains, the painting is a celebration of the winter solstice, which in Latvia is considered a time that actually looks forward to the renewal of spring — hence the flowers and the buoyant mood of the work.

Skulls and skeletons pop up in other works in the exhibit, such as “Fairy Tale of a New Dawn,” but Baczek says these are typically symbols of life’s continual renewal — the cycles of death and life — as are Brike’s frequent images of women shrouded in flowers.

“Jana sees women as basically being of the earth, a natural part of the earth,” he said, “so in many cases she shows flowers actually coming out of a woman or girl’s body.”

In “Song of Ascension,” as one example, a naked woman lies on the ground; above her is a huge cloud of flowers, formed by four small “jets” issuing from her body. (In a possible nod to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th-century painting “The Swing,” the woman in Brike’s painting has kicked off one of her sandals.)

And in “Spring Break,” another young woman lies on the ground in a city park, seemingly immersed in petals from a flowering tree — or are the petals actually flowing up from her?

Brike’s work partly reflects being born in Latvia when the country was still under the thumb of the former Soviet Union. As she has said in past interviews, it was only after first undergoing very formal art training that she later came to express herself more fully through her work.

What also animates many of her paintings is a sense of her female subjects being comfortable with their bodies; they can be naked, or shown wearing a slip, bra, or shift, but that’s not to sexualize them. Rather it’s an examination of internal spaces, of dreams and longing and self-discovery.

As Brike once said, she was raised to feel “shame and guilt about almost everything, my body included.” Her work, then, is a rebuff of that, even if some paintings can be “provocative,” as Baczek puts it, showing young couples making love, though typically in a surrealistic setting.

“There is an honesty in her paintings that you don’t see in a lot of American work,” said Baczek. “Here we treat things with irony. But Jana has this very distinct un-American sensibility that is really refreshing.”

“Heartsong” is on exhibit at William Baczek Fine Arts through Oct. 7.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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