Dick Perez is a Major League Baseball Painter
A Boston Afternoon, Paintings20 x 20As Dick Perez points out in an artist’s statement issued for his solo exhibition at Agora Gallery, art inspired by baseball has a long and honorable history. Indeed, this is the go-to show if you think sports painting began and ends with the slick Playboy illustrator LeRoy Neiman who gives each picture the same gaudy neon–impressionist treatment. For a long list of serious artists –– Thomas Eakins, William Merrit Chase, Robert Henri, George Bellows, Jacob Lawrence, Joan Sloan, Roy Lichtenstein, Elaine de Kooning, Raoul Dufy, Robert Rauschenberg, and, yes, even Andy Warhol! –– have painted baseball pictures.
That said, nobody has ever painted them more consistently or authentically than Dick Perez, the former official artist of both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For Perez, who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico at the age of six, “Discovering the game, playing it in the streets and back lots of Harlem with my multi-ethnic teammates made baseball the portal to my American experience. It was my passion as a young boy and became my muse in my art.”
Although not a strict “Photorealist” by self-definition the artist says, “Due to the nature of my subject matter I work from photographs. I enjoy painting baseball’s past and many of my subjects are either dead or past their prime.” But always, Perez says, he relies heavily on technique, design, and heightened color to make clear that the viewer “is looking at a painting, not a photograph, or an exact rendition of a photograph.”
Perez need not worry on that score, since his oils on panel have an iconic quality that comes across with special clarity in “The Intimidator,” in which we look over the shoulder of a southpaw batter as the ball hovers before him in midair in the split second before the swing, as the pitcher lurches forward from the force of the throw, the steely scowl on his lean, mean face suggesting, “Go ahead, make my day!”
No photograph, no matter how artful, could freeze and encapsulate this moment in exactly this way, making it so lifelike without a single extraneous detail to distract from its essentially abstract appeal. Indeed, the good news for all you aesthetes in the box seats is that one need not be a baseball fan to enjoy this show, just a fan of good painting.
One standout is Perez’s wonderfully leathery portrait of the late great Yankee pitcher Yogi Berra, squinting thoughtfully in his cap and pinstripes, as he leans his crossed arms on the ends of rows of upright bats as though they were boards in a back fence. The picture is pointedly titled with one of Yogi’s famous philosophical statements: “You Can Observe By Just Watching.”
Another is ”A Cure for What Ails You,” a terrific character study of an old fashioned ball player (probably from the 1920s, judging from his floppy white cap and oddly baggy uniform), sitting on a wooden crate and looking up with a sour expression on his rough, sunbaked features as he leans over to re-tie the laces of one of his pointy black cleats. Behind him, on the stadium wall, are big hand-lettered advertisements for headache and neuralgia remedies that he looks over-the-hill and worn out enough to need.
But he’ll probably get up in a minute or two and be back in position on the diamond. Because as Yogi himself used to say,“It ain’t over till it’s over.” –– Byron Coleman
Dick Perez, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th St., Through April 16, 2013. Reception: Thursday, April 4, 6 -8 pm.