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All Figured Out 

Art Review: “The Figure and Beyond,” figurative works by Billy Brauer and students. T.W. Wood Gallery, Montpelier. Through October 25.

Published September 23, 2009 at 8:58 a.m.

The nude female figure is an iconic subject in Western art. It’s right up there with landscapes, portraits of patrons and captains of industry, still lifes of flowers and fruit, and genre painting.

As Warren-based painter Billy Brauer puts it, “Some people like mountains; some people like covered bridges. I think women are beautiful.”

So do his students — or at least the 45 who share a current group exhibit with Brauer at Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery. The show, on view through October 25, includes about 150 works — drawings, paintings and sculptures. Most of them examine the female figure, nude or clothed.

Many of these artists have exhibited widely in central Vermont, including Cora Brooks, Georgia Landau, Harriet Wood, Kathy Kilcourse, Charles Woodard and Frank Woods. Several of Brauer’s sensual oil paintings of willowy women in strange, self-absorbed poses are also in the show.

Brauer, now in his seventies, is a highly successful painter — his in-demand works can command tens of thousands of dollars, and even the prints and posters from his Salsa dancer series, which are available online, go for several hundred. Brauer has had solo exhibitions at such venues as the Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Chase Gallery in Boston, and his paintings are popular with private collectors.

It’s easy to see why. Brauer’s work is bold and almost forbidding in its moody intensity. His women aren’t runway models or happy matrons corraling children. They’re young, self-consciously erotic and limned in glowing light. The paintings could be interpreted as male fantasies of the inaccessible, mysterious woman — a future conquest, perhaps.

Brauer’s life drawing class — which he dubbed “Thursday nights forever” — has been running in the Montpelier area for 37 years. Many of his former students are now colleagues. Several of his protégés, including abstract painter Frank Wood, have attended the weekly sessions for decades. But Brauer occasionally brings talented novices and high school students into the fold, as well.

“I teach on an extremely high level,” says Brauer, who trained under Federico Castellon at the School for Visual Arts in New York. “And I have artists of different ability levels.”

Over the decades, the ad hoc group has set up in the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the Pyralisk (a former performing arts space) and the Wood Gallery. These days, the 30 or so artists meet at Noble Hall on the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus. Each week they hire a model who typically strikes one pose for the whole session. Brauer says this works well for painters who need more time to get the light and color right. Artists who prefer to make successive quick drawings of the model tend to walk around, capturing different angles. Though Brauer leads the sessions, he describes them as workshops in which he helps enhance the artists’ talent and their ability to “see better, draw better and explore color.”

The works in this exhibition are testimonials to his teaching method. Though Brauer’s style seems to have influenced some of the artists, most of the works are not derivative. This is not a “Brauer School of Figure Painting” show, even though each artist includes at least one work from the class.

Ann Young’s “Portrait Study #4,” for example, is just as edgy as any of Brauer’s nudes, but there’s nothing ethereal about this character. The subject is middle-aged and attractive, but not beautiful, and the artist seems to have caught her by surprise. Young paints in an unflinchingly realistic style.

Charles Woodard combines landscape painting with portraiture in “Winter Scene.” A young woman wearing a wool hat and winter jacket paints en plein air in a snowy, sunlit field. She stands in profile, poised in front of the canvas, brush raised toward her painting. Woodard adroitly captures the energy and concentration of the artist projecting her inner self on a two-dimensional surface.

“The Figure and Beyond” includes dozens of nudes — expect plenty of not-so-pornographic T&A. For viewers who enjoy figure painting, the Wood Gallery is the place to go in Vermont right now. Brauer’s students have taken their lessons to heart, and to hand.

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Anne Galloway


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