Unclaimed Moments: The Paintings of Doug Safranek

For the past twenty plus years, Doug Safranek has painted portraits of New York that are so specific, so painstakingly constructed, and so stylistically distinct that they reveal fresh facets of an old, familiar face.

Safranek’s artistic encounters with the city continue, in some respects, the tradition of the Ashcan School.  The shifting cultures of marginal neighborhoods and the energy of the city’s immigrants remain as fascinating and invigorating to him as they were to John Sloan, George Bellows and the other Ashcan artists who painted New York a century ago.  Like them, Safranek makes a point of recognizing those urban inhabitants who, by reasons of class, race, or ethnicity, have not secured a prominent place at the public table.  “In my Brooklyn neighborhood, “ he once told an interviewer, “artists walk alongside Polish immigrants, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Hasidic Jews from Hungary.  I was inspired to portray [this] unparalleled diversity in my paintings.”

Although New York immigrants today are far more visible in art (and as creators of art) than they were at the beginning of the twentieth century, their stature remains vulnerable to social and political whims, as we have seen so dramatically in the post-9/11 era.  The city shifts, people re-position themselves, neighborhoods turn over to turn around — and the lines of the city’s face assume a new expression.  It’s not surprising that artists are still interested.

It’s also not surprising that their approach to the city varies.  The Ashcan artists often painted the city at eye level, putting the viewer and the viewed on the same footing and provoking — or enticing — the viewer into a direct, immediate encounter with the subjects of the work.

Safranek paints from a different perspective.  His preferred vantage point is above and away from the subject — sometimes far away.  This enables him to include vastness and complexity as elements of every scene.  His compositions are always dynamic, not only because everyone in them is in motion, but also because there is space for the viewer’s eye to roam throughout the scene, examining different areas.  This omniscient point of view has its price: to enlarge the scope of his vision, to create a feeling of boundlessness or even grandeur (Small Change), the artist must shrink the people.  This can be especially challenging in some of his smaller works; The Middle Bridge for example, is only 2 ½ by 2 ⅜ inches.  The tension between the largeness of the feeling and the smallness, or ordinariness, of the moment keeps the paintings taut and unsentimental.

But no matter how small the people in his paintings become, or how many of them are crowded onto one small surface, Safranek insists on the humanity by painting them all as individuals.  He recognizes each person, gives them all their uniqueness: their own posture, gesture, expression.  The scarves and shoes and bathing suits they wear are all specific.  They carry different shopping bags, push different carts, and wear different hairstyles.  Even their dogs are individualized (Breaking Light).

In his choice of medium, Safranek differs not only from the Ashcan artist but from most contemporary artists as well.  Since he was a graduate student in the 1980’s, he has painted almost exclusively in egg tempera.  One might think that egg tempera, with its traditional associations to religious iconography and its aesthetic quality of translucence, would be an odd choice for Safranek’s quintessentially urban, secular environments.  But this paradox has helped him develop his distinctive style.  HIs New York springs not just from iron, steel, brick, and concrete, but also from the striving, the energy , the new life that constantly builds, inhabits, destroys, and then reconstructs the city.  Everyone is in motion.  Everything is always changing.  Safranek’s way of stopping time, of preserving some essential facet of the city’s shifting image, is through the small, quiet, repetitive brushstrokes required to release the subtle but enduring qualities of egg tempera.  Paul Cadmus, one of the 20 century’s masters of the medium, said that each tempera stroke was like a “heartbeat.”  It’s a technique that allows Safranek to capture the essence of each image, what he calls “ a sense of intimate stillness in even the most active compositions.”  It’s what invests his paintings, in spite of all the activity they contain, with a feeling of solidity and calm.

Safranek is a figurative artist, and figurative art has an inherent narrative aspect: in it, something recognizable happens.  Sometimes the who story is there; sometimes it is barely hinted at.  Some paintings present a single image or a composition that directs viewers immediately to the heart of the work, sparking an almost-instantaneous understanding or emotional reaction.  Other paintings combine a wealth of images and details that invite viewers to “read” the painting in a more linear way, moving from one area to another until they have experienced the cumulative effect of the work.

Safranek’s paintings clearly belong to the latter category.  But what is really happening in them?  There’s virtually no conflict or drama.  There’s nothing extreme or exaggerated going on.  People are just crossing a street or walking their dogs or reading the marquee in front of an old movie theater.  Of course, ordinary moments can have great significance, not only for the people who actually experienced them, but also for the artists who turn them into works of art and for the audiences who experience those works.  But these are not the moments Safranek has painted.  Safranek has scavenged the city to find moments that are less than ordinary: moments so nondescript that if he didn’t catch them and transmute them into paintings, they would pass by automatically, like breathing, and remain unclaimed.

To be aware, to pay attention, is to claim these moments.  This is where Safranek’s portraits of New York City — “on both sides of the bridge” — begin.

Find Doug’s work at: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of the City of New York; the New York Historical Society; the Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock; the Frye Art Museum, Seattle; the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach; and ACA Galleries, New York City.

Honors and awards he has received: Silver Medal, Painting Division, Greater Spokane Arts Festival, 1979; WARF Graduate Fellowship at University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1980-81; Marie Kohler Fellowship, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1981-84; Elizabeth Greenshield’s Grant, Montreal, 1986; University of Connecticut at Storrs, Visiting Artists Lecture, 1989; E.D. Foundation Award, New York, 1995; the Jack Richeson Award at the 2012 Salmagundi Club’s international non-members show for a miniature painting; and the Gold Medal of Honor for painting at the 2012 Allied Artists of America show at the National Arts Club.

– by Jane Schwartz for the 2006 ACA Galleries Exhibit Catalog Both Sides of the Bridge: New York in Egg Tempera