The new solo exhibit by painter Kerry Simmons at Robert Lange Studios is called Wild, and many of the striking images Simmons has created bring elements of nature into the mix. But this isn’t a collection of untamed landscapes or ferocious animals. Instead, these bits and pieces from the great outdoors (a group of butterflies, a windblown leaf, a windswept field) become part of larger pieces where ethereal, mysterious portraits take center stage. The aforementioned butterflies are strewn through a woman’s hair. Another sports a set of fake predatory teeth, standing up to her waist in reeds. And still another has her back to us, wading out into a rippling lake.
So if it’s wildness that Simmons conveys, she does so at the edges of her paintings, hinting at the untamed rather than stating it explicitly. These paintings are the end result of a year-long journey that began in the country up north.
“When I started putting the show together, I’d been out in New Hampshire, out in the country,” Simmons says. “And that kind of sparked some interest in things that were wild and out of control. I saw wild animals running around and crossing highways, and I wanted to piece that together with people whose look that I liked.”
As she began creating paintings based on the themes of wildness, she also chose some of her models from very close to home.
“My niece is in there, and my sister is in there,” she says. “The paintings are an amalgam of a year or two of experiences just being out in nature, out in the summer cottage my family has out on the lake and interacting with things that I found beautiful.”
Simmons says she ultimately chose to use the somewhat unconventional models in these paintings both because she’s attracted to more classical notions of beauty, and because she’s “forever drawn to faces.”
“I have a hard time connecting with people sometimes, and I feel like a way for me to empathize and connect with people is by painting them,” she says. “And what society typically says is beautiful doesn’t interest me. I’m drawn more to classical ideals of beauty, and I feel like currently, contemporary beauty is based on what marketing finds interesting. I see a lot more variety in terms of types of beauty. I think what I’m looking for is a more complex beauty than a woman looking like a model; I’m more interested in an individual kind of beauty.”
And it’s worth mentioning that Simmons has worked a more abstract vision of “wildness” into some of her paintings, most specifically in one called “After Party,” that features a woman wearing the head of a pinata.
“That’s actually my sister with a pinata on her head,” Simmons says with a laugh, “and that’s reflective of the wildness of my niece’s birthday every year where they destroy a pinata. It’s out of control and really fun. There’s also a piece with a model from the Netherlands who was so beautiful naturally that she embodied this mythical creature they had in their folklore who roams through the woods.”
Even the way Simmons created the paintings in the Wild exhibit are based in nature. The method she used is called egg tempera, which is a technique of using an egg yolk as a way to bind pigments together as opposed to using oil or acrylic or latex.
“Tempera fell out of favor in the art world when oils became used on more of a widespread scale, because oils were so much easier and more flexible,” she says. “Tempera is a little more finicky. But it has this very beautiful property, it’s all natural, and there’s a satiny sheen you get with eggs.”
It’s also worth noting that one of the most famous American artists of all time, Andrew Wyeth, worked a great deal with egg tempera.
Ultimately, Simmons says that she hopes people walk away from Wild with a different perspective on what contemporary art can be.
“I would hope that it might broaden people’s expectations,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be detailed portraits. Maybe there’s a beauty and an intimacy in taking the time to craft something that’s not as much about an individual.”