Richard Limber’s ink-on-paper works lining the long wall at the Edgartown library shift across the spectrum from descriptive, where you get a sense of the person’s features, to visual explorations of color, light, and shapes on the paper.
Limber works with a loose brushstroke, infusing his portraits with spontaneity and breadth. At the same time, he deftly punctuates his play of color washes with singular defining opaque lines that give specificity to his subjects. Just a few dark lines for the eyes, brows, nose, and jawline hold the looser swathes and strokes of color in his intimate painting of Cassidy, an Island kid.
Women dominate the wall, however, and one in particular appears five times in different iterations. Sometimes we get more details than others of Tamar’s features. At others, such as “Tarmar (backlit),” the emphasis becomes the luminescent colors. And I mean literally luminescent. Limber has been exploring sometimes putting his works over what are the equivalent of light boxes, which create evocative veils of color not unlike the natural light shining through stained-glass windows. Limber says that he wants an image on the paper “that is autonomous to the model. A little comes from the model, but mostly it’s the relationship of color to create some type of mood. I want to create something that draws the eye in a very different way.”
Four of the works in the show are backlit; some of them have a button on the lower left that you can push to make the light increase or decrease in brightness. Unlike most two-dimensional art, these quite literally invite us to engage with it instead of being simply a passive viewer. Limber says, “I like that idea that you can be active with it.”
The backlighting idea came about in a number of ways. When he was shooting a video in reaction to the general election, Limber started to realize the potential of theatrical lighting. He explains, “Once you get to playing with light, you can do lots of things with artwork that aren’t normally done. And that’s exciting to me. Really exciting. You can use your artwork to create something that is much more dramatic and theatrical if you start playing with it.” Limber also was working on his kitchen table, which has an IKEA lamp with a paper shade, and he started pinning pictures up on it while he was working. Limber explains that like his backlit pieces, in this straight artwork, “You’re bridging art and technology. So, I like the combination of having an original artwork in it. It’s not digital. Not a pixelated image.” And hence the backlit pieces were born.
The first work in the show, “Moving Pictures,” seems at first to stand apart from the others, both in its startling size of 8 by 7 feet, and its subject matter — in this case screens. But here again he plays with the idea of the intersection of art and technology. Limber points out, “We’re all looking at screens all the time. We expect that zippy light to happen. With this one I’m actually playing with screen imagery. It’s about play.” It includes visual references to movies, multiple images for animation, an old-fashioned television. And all these separate items swirl in a seeming vortex around an upside-down portrait. “I wanted something spinning off from his head. It’s a jumble of a picture, but I like that,” he says.
While the portraits in the first part of the exhibit are of Vineyarders, Limber also includes those that speak to his wider concerns. However, he renders them, such as those of Michael Cohen, Kim Jun Young, or Putin, with his same artistic approach. We can see the consistency of his style even in the three variations of extreme close-ups of a woman cradling a baby to her cheek in pieces about border crossings that were inspired by newspaper photographs and headlines, which you can make out written in the upper corners. Why repeat the image, you might wonder? Limber says that he likes “showing the process. One day I did this. The next day I did that. I have placed these works on the wall to show the variability that one repeated subject can reveal, placing process over perfection.” He wants to make the point that you can present topical issues while retaining artistry. And by manipulating the light behind the version titled “Immigrants 1,” you can alter the work’s effect to reflect your own feelings about the issue.
Whether the works are backlit or not, whether he overlaps his colors or leaves them unaltered, Limber is masterful with his ink washes. Their fluidity creates a liveliness that is enhanced by the quickness of his stroke. With this technique, there is really no room for mistakes, unlike using oils where you can come back and paint over an area or scrape off the original pigment and start again.
“You can work very spontaneously and if you don’t, you’re going to get a mess,” Limber says. “You’re looking at the ones that I like, but there are a lot of rejections.” They take him 20 minutes to half an hour. He is not into minute perfection, but prefers “to experiment, and hopefully I’ll be surprised. I hope that people looking at it are a little surprised by the variation.”
“From Here & There +” is on display at the Edgartown library through Sept. 30.