Haynes Galleries through May 27
WORDS Margaret F.M. Walker
There is deep curiosity at work in Seth Haverkamp. In speaking with him, it is clear that the need for a challenge is the primary driver of his creativity, and always at the pinpoint of his focus is the human face. In his own words, “There is nothing more captivating than a face. Faces are everything; they are the world encapsulated in eight square inches. I don’t ever get bored painting a face.” Haverkamp does paint portraits on commission, such as The Twins, a highly interesting and conceptually developed work that explores the similarities and differences of twins in numerous symbolic ways. However, the artist’s go-to subjects are the four children of him and his wife Catherine, also a painter. Their children, always playing dress-up and make- believe, appear to be as creative as their parents and a constant source of inspiration. While Haverkamp does not ever paint them “at play,” he does something far more difficult and eternal by capturing the environment of play—the impishness, whimsy, and childlike enthusiasm for discovery. In Essie’s Unicorn, his daughter’s face is ever so slightly off center. In the negative space between her and the unicorn’s heads, we are invited to ponder the subject of her intense gaze and the animal’s charge. This is a fantastically balanced and compositionally interesting piece: Essie’s feather and the unicorn’s horn strike off at different angles, while the two are unified by the color pink and the thin lines of harness and headband. Similarly, Her Giraffe captures the juxtaposition of a quirky, improvised headband and the earnestness with which children will relate their make-believe worlds.
“Haverkamp’s distinctively patterned backgrounds make his paintings easy to recognize. These timeless settings are a signature of sorts, playing a subsidiary role to focus our attention back onto the face of the subject.”
Headdresses are a recurring theme in Haverkamp’s work for several reasons. First, they present an opportunity for him to incorporate nature into portraiture. The artist loves landscape paintings but never creates them himself. Second, he feels that they help capture the psyche of play, providing a visual cue in addition to just the glint of an eye or twist of the mouth. I think that he is drawn to these accessories, too, because of the way they make a portrait more interesting and less straightforward, all the while framing a face to emphasize its uniqueness and the delicate nuances of human expressions. That is certainly the case with the intricate Essie’s Headdress, which won the People’s Choice Award in the 2013 Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. In it, his daughter sits upon a simple chair, her legs intertwined with its wooden ones in a way that points to the twisting of long branches into an elaborate crown. Her face and affect are engaging, and this headdress adds another layer of personality. The bright buds on the twigs serve to unify the foreground with the splotched background, just as the materiality of the chair is echoed in both the crown and the hardwood floor.
Haverkamp’s distinctively patterned backgrounds make his paintings easy to recognize. These timeless settings are a signature of sorts, playing a subsidiary role to focus our attention back onto the face of the subject. For a long time, the artist found faces so captivating and backgrounds so uninteresting that he had a pile of unfinished paintings. As is often the case with discoveries, he landed upon the idea for this technique by accident. While at first this splattered sort of look was a way to finish paintings, he has found the pursuit of this technique and the transformation of pattern into a three-dimensional element to hold his interest. I would argue, too, that it heightens the mystical feeling of his otherwise very realistic paintings, especially those capturing the imagination of children.
In paintings of recent years, one will notice this fully abstract pattern often taking three-dimensional form. Secret Keeper features a girl and her dog in front of a draped cloth. By adding shadow to create the idea of folds in fabric, Haverkamp transforms the background of, say, Her Giraffe into a more recognizable setting. Precious takes this one step further, showing the top and sides of the drapes so that the exposed wall to the side acts as more of a nod to the grand drapery seen in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture. Most recently, he has experimented with taking the splattered background and incorporating it into the actual subject of the painting. Fireflies is a perfect example of this effort. The artist’s niece is illuminated by a cluster of fireflies above her hands, giving the idea of a gentle and unconventional natural light. The lightning bugs themselves, though, are just a translation of this same background technique into the foreground, adding an element of abstraction into an otherwise precise rendering of reality.
Perched Nest is a rare still life in an oeuvre dominated by the human figure. The artist uses works such as this as an opportunity to sharpen his technical skills, be they the smooth facture, use of shadow, or working color palette (no small feat, as he is red/green colorblind). This work, as most of his still lifes, demonstrates an appreciation for the details of nature in its delicate balance of a single egg in a tangled nest precariously situated atop a variety of rocks. That pristine oval of white, while not a face, shares a consistency with his portraits in its emphasis on the absolute centrality of life.