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Bruce Herman was born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1953 and lives in Gloucester ( Massachusetts), USA. He is the chairman of the faculty of Fine Arts and director of the Gallery of Gordon College in Wenham ( Boston), where he teaches painting. With his colleagues, Herman established Gordon College’s program in Orvieto in 1998, where students study the art of the Italian Renaissance with an eye towards the mission of the arts in the contemporary world. For this reason, Herman has made several visits to Orvieto, finding it a place of continual inspiration.
The paintings of Bruce Herman have gained appreciation among diverse audiences in his American milieu, but not without controversy and often reluctantly.
People of all ideological and aesthetic orientations feel the gravitational attraction of his richly layered and textured surfaces, his mastery of complex traditional techniques, and the tantalizing visual experience of objects and landscapes emerging and receding and overlapping with the central human figures. Every element seems to allude to a place or a building or another artwork (Fra Angelico’s Deposition) or an iconographic tradition (Sebastian with his arrows) which contemporary viewers are likely to recall imperfectly, but as cloaked with mystery.
His overtly religious subjects, and titles are often off-putting to people without religious faith, or enigmatic to people no longer familiar with the narratives of the Bible or the lives of the saints. Even viewers who share belief in the significance of his religious themes and titles and allusions can be put off by their unconventional configuration and their complex overlapping of abstraction and figuration. Viewers who can engage with the religious themes only ironically or sceptically can be irritated by Herman’s undeniable sincerity, yet by their resistance to being categorized as nostalgic or oldfashioned. Herman’s textured surfaces work like palimpsests. On a multi-layered base of polished gesso and bole and gold and silver leaf, Herman builds up layer upon layer of paint and of human and architectural forms, and then scrapes back down into lower layers. These under layers appear tantalizingly fresh and evocative when they are uncovered by the tearing away of outer layers, which themselves are penetrated by the history of the layerings. The process itself imitates historical and spiritual processes of wounding and suffering and healing and burial and resurrection.
This interpenetration of historical layers and fragments and vestiges make Bruce Herman’s paintings richly resonant with Orvieto itself, a city often described as a palimpsest of decaying, living, recuperating reconfigured layers of history. Indeed, Herman himself pays distinct homage to Orvieto as an underlying influence in his work since his first visit in 1993.
These surfaces of newly-vibrant vestiges that mark both the fabric of Orvieto and the surfaces of Herman’s paintings, also mark their human subjects. We see Herman’s careful attention to corporality, and to the conditions of weakness and fallenness that human beings experience in the body, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually. The artist invites us to contemplate the body, and therefore the human being in its capacity for beauty despite its fragility, in the midst of fragility, and paradoxically, because of its fragility. Finally these paintings open new grounds for hope: reconsidering the sanctity of human being through a recovered capacity to be fully present in the world, testifying to the dignity found in the hidden places of grief and weakness, demonstrating compassion without pietism in confronting the meaning of “The Body Broken.”