andscapes, still-lifes, portraits, figures: not many artists can run the gamut of styles and techniques. Renoir could, and so can James Aponovich.
The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester is presenting a retrospective of Aponovich’s work. This first major retrospective of the renowned N. H. native features 50 works spanning a 30-year career.
Aponovich’s work is well known in New York galleries and the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco, and has been acquired by major museums such as the Art institute of Chicago, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
His first exhibition at the Currier took place in 1979. “It was a small gallery show,” the former Nashua native says from his Hancock home.
A larger show followed in 1985, followed by this major retrospective 20 years later.
“I hope my work now is better; that’s the main thing,” Aponovich says. “You don’t really know where you’re going when you start. I hope my work is getting richer in color.”
It certainly is. Aponovich employs meticulous detail, whether in his paintings or in his drawings. In the 1975 drawing “Portrait of Deborah,” for instance, every inch of the wicker chair she sits in is firmly rendered, as are the carpet, floorboards — even the spider plants hanging in front of a window reflected in a mirror on the wall. His paintings add to that detail a rich, vivid color.
Aponovich majored in art history, along with art, at the University of New Hampshire.
“I initially planned to be an art historian,” he says. “Most of my training came after I graduated and simply began painting.”
He started out doing nudes and figures and landscapes. He paid his models $15 an hour, a price the fledgling artists couldn’t really afford. Eventually he settled into still-lifes.
“What happens oftentimes in the art world, the art market has an effect on what you do,” he says. “People respond more to one thing than another.”
Figures are represented in his portraits, and numerous landscapes are included in the exhibition. The earliest, “Vernal Equinox (1977),” is a round painting of a tree with a moon rising during the daylight hours. “Gateway to Concord (1986)” doesn’t shirk industry the way most landscape artists do; it emphasizes it with a factory sitting smack in the middle of the painting and another industrial area in the foreground.
“At the same time, I was studying Chinese art,” Aponovich says. “In Chinese art, still lifes are the most important form of art. I found still-lifes to be more lively than human beings. It didn’t matter to me what I was painting. I started to paint flowers: they’re vibrant, they’re living. Human beings only come in three colors; flowers come in so many more.”
He now teaches at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where he is the artist in residence. “Nothing teaches you more than teaching,” he says.
Aponovich paints from life. He and his wife, fellow artist Elizabeth Johansson, have 10 gardens at their Hancock home, including roses, a terrace garden, an allée, a cutting garden, woodlands, shade, vegetables — even a Maine garden, reminiscent of the years they lived in Maine. These offer some of the key ingredients to Aponovich’s still lifes.
There is nothing quite like these still lifes. Once you think you’ve gleaned everything from one of his paintings, you can go back and get more: the reflection of the room in the vase, the light or heavy texture of the drapery, and the shifting light — from morning to afternoon to evening to night — in the background of the four simple studies of fruit in cardboard boxes.
Even the painting that include self-portraits or portraits of his daughter Ana include a variety of substance and color to enrich them. “Self Portrait with Ana in the Studio (1985)” includes Aponovich and Ana, but it also includes cloths, a Chinese vase, brushes, Russian Easter eggs, plants, strawberries, brushes, books, glass, reflections in a black vase — yet it’s so organized that the painting is not the slightest bit cluttered, the true trademark of a master.
There are several portraits of Ana in the exhibition. During her childhood in the 1980s, Ana contracted leukemia. Aponovich faced his child’s critical illness head on, including her in several paintings.
One of these, “Portrait of Ana (1984),” is a nude portrait of Ana looking away from the viewer, her head almost bereft of hair. The portrait is deceptively simple, yet it includes many symbols. The African violets in the background represent African vinca, a primary ingredient in vincristine, one of the drugs that helped save Ana’s life. The red-striped tablecloth represents her diseased blood. Healthy plants represent Aponovich’s hope for a healthy life, while a black background represents imminent death. A white shroud over her seat echoes the idea of imminent death and the possibility of angel’s wings.
The good news is that Ana fully recovered. Today she is 24 years old and a college graduate who works as a graphic designer.
One of the most intriguing paintings in the exhibition is the 1979 “Still Life from Above,” a study of light and shadow and the reflection of empty glasses.
“People think I do (reflections) as sort of a cheap artist trick. Again, going back to Chinese painting, it’s more like mixing hard with soft, brittle with firm — that sort of thing. I use cloth more to balance texture than to balance intrigue.”
Aponovich says his technique developed on its own. “I’m not so much an artist as a painter. I wasn’t trying to be a particular type of artist; I was a representational painter from the beginning. It’s unforeseen at the moment where it’s going; you try to keep up with it instead of it keeping up with you. There’s a magic at the end, where the painting takes on a life of its own.”
He estimates that he will start about 12 paintings during the summer as the sequence of flowers arrives: tulips, poppies, and irises. “I try to work out a rough composition of what it’s going to look like. A lot of times I add the landscape. I don’t use photographs; you’re photographing a two-dimensional surface to a two dimensional surface. It’s really copying.”
He is remarkably skilled at portraits — self-portraits, portraits of daughter Ana, and his portrait of former Gov. Stephen E. Merrill — yet they are his least favorite subjects. He paints portraits, he says, “usually when someone’s pointing a gun at me and making me do it. I don’t seek them out. I’ve done a lot of portraiture. People want to be more generous-looking or better looking.”
Aponovich excels at framing his paintings. This refers not to the actual frames, but to the work itself. His “View of Blue Hill, Maine” (2005) is framed by landscape; his “Venetian Still Life (2000)” is framed by arches; and his portrait of Stephen Merrill is framed by columns and, behind the former governor, the dome of the capitol.
Many of his paintings include Italian backgrounds: The family tries to travel to Italy every two or three years. Closer to home, their gardens will be available during the Hancock Garden Tour on June 25.
The Aponovich retrospective at the Currier Museum of Art runs through June 20.
If you go …
To get there: 101 east, becomes Boynton across 293. Bear left onto South Main, right on Bridge Street, left on Beech, right on Prospect to parking lot on right. Museum is at 201 Myrtle Way, 603-669-6144.