“My process of painting is very much an additive search for the final painting. The paintings are not conceptual in nature; rather, the process of painting reveals the painting,” writes the artist whose latest solo show will be opening this Sunday at the Gallery at Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz. “When the process is working well, the outcome is an exciting surprise to the artist.”
What may come as an equally exciting surprise to the average visitor to this exhibition is how beautiful these works are, because many of us know Stuart Bigley primarily as the man behind the art – the impresario rather than the creator. For folks from New Paltz and beyond who rely on Unison as our reliable hometown source for great music, theatre, visual arts and workshops in everything from figure drawing to firewalking, Bigley’s friendly grin as he introduces the featured performers has been an intrinsic part of the experience ever since the arts center was established. But unbeknownst to many, he’s also a serious working artist, having trained at the Corcoran College of Art and graduated from Silvermine College of Art and shown his works widely throughout the Northeast.
Bigley co-founded Unison with Peter Pitzele in the mid-‘70s, became executive director in 1980 and served in that capacity for over 30 years, booking performers, promoting shows and somehow raising enough funds even in lean times to keep this grassroots-grown community treasure afloat. He then went through a transitional period as artistic director, finally stepping down altogether when Christine Crawfis came aboard as executive director in 2012.
It’s a bit disconcerting for longtime Paltzonians to try to picture Unison without Stuart, but fear not: He has been putting his “retirement” to very good use, at the easel and behind the camera. “This is my first solo show at Unison in five years,” he notes. “It is over a year since I left the staff at Unison, and have been full-time in my studio. During this time I have been free to follow my creative process in whatever direction it takes me. This show will include one eight-by-eight-foot diptych from the 1970s (I have never had a gallery wall big enough to show it), as well as a five-by-seven-foot diptych done this year. There will be a slideshow of photographs taken at Unison performances over the past 15 years, as well as many new variations on paintings, drawings and a very new series of mixed-media works.”
Check out Bigley’s website at www.stuartbigley.com for a taste of what’s in store at this exhibition, which will stay up through the end of July. He’s religious about figure drawing and totes a camera on his world travels, but Bigley has an exquisite sense of color, the combinations that he selects pleasing to the eye even when they seem a bit counterintuitive.
His paintings in the past couple of decades have been mostly nonrepresentational, yet they present an irresistible temptation to discern figures in the swirling patterns of brushstrokes: some elusive animal camouflaged by wind-tossed grasses, perhaps. Many of the canvases suggest cave art or petroglyphs, or calligraphy in some not-yet-invented alphabet. Patterns of scattered orbs suggest molecules and solar systems. One of his newest mixed-media works is titled Abstraction on Lights in a Tunnel 2, but its cascading ribbons evoke the Aurora Borealis or strands of DNA.
Many of the works are intended to be hung as pairs, but although a few are genuine diptychs, more fall into relational categories that Bigley refers to as “siblings” or “cousins.” He’ll work on two at a time, building up a layer on one and then switching to the other for a while, using the same palette. Sometimes he’ll then scrape swaths of paint away, creating undulating patterns of texture that you want to reach out and touch. His painterly oeuvre as a whole is simultaneously sophisticated and accessible, vibrant and delicate, pulsing with life and motion, singing to the unconscious with the fluid symbology of dreams.
“Five Years Later: Works by Stuart Bigley” opens with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 2. Admission is free. Unison is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road in New Paltz, just a short hop west of the Wallkill. For more info call (845) 255-1559 or visit www.unisonarts.org.
“Five Years Later: Works by Stuart Bigley” opening reception, Sunday, June 2, 4-6 p.m., free, Unison Arts & Learning Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org.