Tradition and Originality in the Art of George J.D. Bruce

Written by: Wilson Wong

Bachelor Teapot & Silver Jug, Oil on Canvas

What makes an artist original, if not striving after new forms of expression? Those who truly know would argue that it is actually the artist's ability to imbue even the most traditional subjects and genres with the stamp of an individual sensibility. The paintings of George J.D. Bruce are a fine case in point, on the strength of the work he is showing at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from June 3 through 24. (Reception: Thursday, June 5, 6 to 8 PM.)

By all indications, Bruce, who was born in Great Britain in 1930, trained at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting, and is a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London is a traditional English gentleman. And the work that he produces in his studios in London and in the countryside of London invariably reflects such a strong identification with the great art of the past that when he was asked by an interviewer to name his most gratifying experience as an artist, he immediately answered, "Experiencing the Old Masters."

Yet for all his reverence for tradition, what makes Bruce's own art relevant today is the freshness and immediacy that he brings to his interpretation of landscape and still life subjects. Indeed, it is obvious that his vision is unmediated by academic considerations and that he is responding directly to the subject at hand when he paints a picture such as "Black Cuillins," one of his smallest yet most exquisitely atmospheric oils on paper.

For there is no formula for capturing as vividly as Bruce does here the particular quality of light streaming through darkly massed clouds and mist, illuminating the tips of foliage in a manner that makes it almost appear as though they are being ignited by the sun and sending up smoke. The achievement of such effects requires a gift of natural grace that cannot be learned even from the closest study of the Old Masters.

Indeed, although Bruce attributes his mastery of technique to being classically trained as an art student in the 1950s, it is individual vision of a type that ultimately transcends technique, even while applying technique admirably, that brings alive paintings such as another small oil on paper called "Tiree Headland," in which the artist's interpretation of yet another dramatically overcast sky, rough breeze-blown grasses, and frigid surf along the shoreline of a deserted beach actually evokes a visceral sensation of the climate of the scene in the viewer¬¬, at the very least, this viewer.

Somewhat more decorous, yet no less vividly limned, Bruce's still life compositions, such as "Blue Flowers with Redcurrants," and "Roses in Fish Bowl," demonstrate his ability to capture subtle nuances of color and reflections of light on various surfaces. But even more significant is the vibrant life that he brings to carefully arranged floral subjects, which do not have the unpredictability, the sense of flux, and the spontaneity of natural settings. What George J.D. Bruce does with these static subjects, however, besides capturing the individual vitality of each petal and leaf with impressive verisimilitude, is to emphasize their formal qualities every bit as emphatically as any abstract artist might. And it is this ability to highlight the abstract attributes underlying the visible world that makes him a painter of rare and original gifts.

Image Credits: Bachelor Teapot & Silver Jug, Oil on Canvas, 25" x 20"

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