From the June, 2017 issue
"I recognize you," says U-M art professor Nora Venturelli as she welcomes me into her home. I'm there to see the paintings in her Vice Versa series, many of which are now at WSG Gallery. Once upon a time, I attended a few of the weekly figure drawing sessions she's been organizing at EMU for twenty years. I never imagined she'd recognize me years later, but, true to her artistic fascination with the human body, Venturelli never forgets a face.
Venturelli was inspired to create her Vice Versa series by examining her own artistic process. When she paints figures, she usually starts with acrylics, sketching the outline of a body before going back in with oils to create a more realistic image, essentially erasing those acrylic sketches. But she missed seeing that early stage of the work and wanted to find a way for these brightly colored sketches to talk to their fleshier counterparts. Listening to her talk about her work in her studio, surrounded by an impressive array of arresting canvases, I'm struck by how much humble curiosity she has about the form she's clearly mastered.
Venturelli realized in hindsight that her new work draws inspiration from her mentor, Julio Vanzo, who worked with her as a young artist in Argentina before she immigrated to the U.S. in 1968. She shows me a Google image search of his work, and I can see the similarity in the overlapping figures painted in brightly colored lines. But where Vanzo's paintings are highly energetic, with faceless figures moving almost frenetically across the canvas, Venturelli's paintings are much more grounded, with figures firmly rooted in space. There's a weight to them, and an emotional realness that veers away from Vanzo's work.
Most of Venturelli's paintings feature a model rendered several times on each canvas in various poses--some done in Venturelli's old realistic style with oils, others colorful sketches done in acrylics (Venturelli describes it as "drawing with paint"). The figures--mostly women--overlap
and intersect, often subverting conventional spatial relationships. In one large painting, a life-size realistic figure bends dramatically, her arms out to the side in a graceful wave, but her head has been replaced by the cerulean torso of the figure behind her. "She was getting lost," Venturelli says of the blue woman who was originally in the background, "so I brought her forward." The decision yields a more compelling composition in a painting that was already remarkable. Now that lovely arm curve is more prominent without a pesky head in the way, and the subversion of expectations keeps us looking for other surprises.
To Venturelli, the figures in a painting have their own personalities. "One always comes forward," she says. "They're fighting for that front attention." She gestures to a large charcoal drawing of a woman in a triumphant forward-facing pose. "I want her somewhere." It's clear Venturelli is not done exploring this series, which started out as twenty paintings but is currently at forty-eight.
Her favorite painting of the bunch, the large #35 (pictured here), was just in a show in New York. It's no wonder Venturelli is getting attention outside of Michigan. Reaching her hand out, beckoning, then grasping, the figure in #35 is in a crowd of herselves--I count at least thirteen of her--that are by turns intense and aloof. In her vibrant reds and purples and rich caramels and browns, she's full of youthful potential, and as she walks off the canvas with her head thrown back, you can't help but wonder how far she will go.
Venturelli's Vice Versa is at WSG Gallery through June 10.
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
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