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Blonde Ambition 

Lance Richbourg

Published April 21, 2010 at 6:11 a.m.

Lance Richbourg built his reputation painting realistic baseball scenes — dramatic images of the action and romance of the game and its iconic players. He was given the same name as his father, a baseball player who debuted in the majors in 1921. The younger Richbourg’s paintings read almost like memories: hazy at their edges, but with exact and haunting details.

In these works, Richbourg’s technical skill matches his emotional connection to the subject. His vision of frozen moments on the field turns sports into fine art. In the early 1980s, OK Harris gallery in New York began representing Richbourg. In 1981, a Los Angeles Times reviewer said his paintings “capture the mythical qualities associated with nostalgia and avoid pitfalls of regret and cuteness.” The artist is matter-of-fact and unpretentious about his art-world success.

Richbourg, 71, is also affable and kind and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. Though a Vermonter for almost 35 years, he retains a genteel drawl that gives away his Florida origins. Richbourg is now a professor emeritus of fine arts at St. Michael’s College. He loved teaching at the college, he says, and appreciates the studio time and space the position still affords him.

Vermont viewers are more likely to recognize Richbourg’s recent paintings of Marilyn Monroe than his baseball paintings, which are largely sold through OK Harris. The legendary actress’ visage first appeared in his work in a 2006 show titled “Marilyn & Joe” — the latter name referring to her former husband, Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio — at the Flynn Center’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery. More recently, Richbourg has focused just on Marilyn. “She’s so compelling on the surface, a sexual bombshell icon,” he explains. “But at the same time you could see there was more — a vulnerability and sincerity that she projected beyond that.”

Though Richbourg’s interest in Monroe now centers on her perceived complexity, the idea of painting her started as a joke. “I had been painting baseball for a while. I knew I had to paint someone else,” he says. “I was complaining to a friend that I never get to paint women.” Richbourg raises a brow and grins sheepishly. When the friend suggested he paint baseball players’ wives, Richbourg responded, “That’s a terrible idea.”

But he decided to try it anyway. The only baseball spouse he could think of was Monroe, though her marriage to DiMaggio was brief. Being a frugal artist, Richbourg first painted her on newsprint so as not to waste good paper. “That first one came so easy, I thought, I can do this!” he remembers, “None of the others look like her.”

Each of his newsprint paintings seems to capture a different aspect of Marilyn. In one, her signature blond curl conveys playfulness, and her childlike, upturned nose dominates the painting. In another, her arched brow hints at both sexuality and ironic detachment. All together, the paintings comprise a faceted portrait of the movie star.

Those early pieces on newsprint evolved into the bold, graphic paintings that dominated a recent exhibit at the Men’s Room in Burlington. Richbourg uses an innovative process to enlarge and simplify his newsprint works and transfer them to archival canvas.

To begin the transformation, he takes the newsprint paintings to a copy shop and enlarges each image by tiling it across 12 to 16 sheets of standard paper. He copies them in pure printing colors — cyan, magenta, yellow and key black — so that he leaves with Marilyn multiples. Back in his Colchester studio, Richbourg sometimes paints the paper images with acrylic or gesso before he lays the “tiles” face down on a stretched canvas and paints their backs with an acrylic medium. This transfers the image and paint to the canvas while also creating a grid-like pattern.

The process has the unpredictability of wet media — the paper buckles and tears; the ink transfers unevenly. Richbourg doesn’t know how the image has transferred until the next day when he peels the paper away, leaving only the ink behind. Sometimes parts of the ink peel away, too, making gaps in the resulting image. Richbourg likes the element of mystery introduced in this printing process. “At first [the paintings] were too clear,” he says. “Now the image is obscured, so the abstract becomes important.”

Richbourg’s newsprint paintings are thus transformed into large, simplified and intensely hued variations on his originals. He often layers two or more colors of tiled sheets, which can create a 3-D effect. These works reference current 3-D trends and the pop art of the 1960s, as well as commercial posters and playbills. Paradoxically, Richbourg plays with the methods of mass production while creating hand-produced originals.

Before he embarked on this new way of working, Richbourg was a painting purist. “I never worked with [collage], because I thought it was cheating,” he says with a grin. “I felt the same about using the grid [in my work]; it seemed too easy. My puritan need to struggle was offended.”

Now Richbourg finds the use of collage and grid gives him access to more potential aspects of newsprint paintings. “I started to like the newspaper ... it’s so ephemeral,” he says. Indeed, in the paintings, grocery ads share billing with the universally recognizable face of Marilyn Monroe. Her features and the weekly specials seem oddly linked, as if recalling tabloid stories about the actress’ life, her every success and failure spelled out in bold ink.

What newsprint, coupons and celebrity have in common is their perishable quality. Richbourg’s process flattens the boundary between the subject and the substrate, inviting the viewer to make these connections.

As one views the images, it’s easy to be distracted by Marilyn’s platinum beauty or thoughts of her ultimately tragic stardom, and the misregistration of printed colors can be disorienting. Yet what remains fresh is Richbourg’s combination of these elements with the more permanent act of committing art to canvas. Underneath the pop-culture aspect of these works, the steady focus, practice and hand of a serious artist endure.

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