The trinity of James Innes, Kristi Ryba, and Daphne vom Baur are fascinated by religious art, its history, and perhaps most important of all, how exploring those iconic images can mythologize their own lives. Unexpected subjects and colors give old themes a new look. The results are surprisingly bold and effective.
Ryba takes her inspiration from old family photos, elevating them to the status of Renaissance art. Instead of photo frame masks she uses metal or gold leaf, suggesting religious icons and America’s mid-20th century golden age. Black and white shots are repainted with gouache. “Pony Diptych” takes its cue from portraits of her brother in a cowboy outfit, adding decorative borders and smaller associated paintings, all with a ghostly gray color scheme. “Heading West” follows her family’s move from New York to California, showing their big old trailer and children posing at unsophisticated stops along the way.
This series shows a mastery of realistic detail, from the cheesy grins on the family’s faces to the application of the gold leaf. The monochromatic palette imbues the paintings with a 1950s TV show look, and some of the harsh light and shadow gives the subjects a bizarre Twilight Zone quality.
In another, more colorful series, Ryba amps up the religious iconography but incorporates the domestic life of her relatives. In “Wedding Procession of the Virgin,” the bride has a halo, perhaps causing some of her friends look on with jealous eyes. “Lead Her Not into Temptation” shows God looking down on a mother and child in an easy chair, tempted by men with beak-like noses. Using egg tempera on parchment paper, Ryba takes the lost art of manuscript painting and makes it more accessible for modern women.
There’s more religious imagery in the oil paintings of James Innes, who passed away last year. His Mexican Catholic series covers the ’70s through the ’90s, based on research he did in churches and processions while on vacation or sabbaticals. There’s a dark, ghoulish edge to some of the art — mummies, skeletons, and stigmatized Christ statues are common. Innes made great use of chiaroscuro, underlighting, and bold colors like red, pink, and brown. The approach is respectful yet deeply personal; Innes appears in a couple of the pieces.
Innes also painted carnival scenes. Some of his subjects look caricatured (“Bingo,” “Patriots”) or grotesque (the clown in “King Brothers”). The carnies and an exuberant color scheme capture an authentic fairground atmosphere.
Daphne vom Baur’s religious references are more mythical in nature. Her sculpture background is evident in pieces like “The Land of the Lotus Eaters,” where her figures are placed so that their bodies form graceful contour-like curves. Ulysses crops up several times in scenes derived from Homer’s Odyssey, creating a developing narrative. Ulysses meets Circe on a shore, nymphs during a shipwreck, and other classical creatures, painted with slender necks and gesturing hands.
Vom Baur has a foot and hand fetish, using the appendages to lead our eyes around a scene. Over a lifetime of art making, she’s become adept at depicting each hand so that it signs to us or points to an area of interest. Painting with oil on linen, her colors have a cool, chalky, fresco look that comes from early work with pastels. Her references to Botticelli, George de la Tour, and Degas add an antique quality to even her most recent portraits.
Like Ryba and Innes, vom Baur has a deeply personal investment in her art. Relatives appear alongside Greek heroes and harlequins, either acting as models or marking an occasion like a family wedding. We all view myth and religion through the prism of our own lives and experiences; these artists have taken that perspective a step further, making their personal memories part of art history.