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Art: Nelson Shanks' exceedingly realist art

Edward Sozanski, Contributing Art Critic POSTED: A painter once told me that, for a realist, hands were the most difficult aspect of the human figure to get right. Having seen how many artists have been frustrated by hands, especially in portraiture, I have come to agree.
Hands don't terrorize Nelson Shanks; if anything, he paints them too convincingly, to the point where they become so prominent they can dominate a portrait. I have observed this phenomenon in earlier exhibitions of his work, and I saw it again in his current show at the James A.

Michener Art Museum. When it comes to anatomical precision, Shanks has long been recognized as a peerless craftsman. His manipulations of light and shadow can produce startling illusions of sculptural relief. The most dramatic example at Michener is a portrait of Pope John Paul II whose photo-studio lighting creates an almost unnatural tableau-vivant effect. As we can see in this show of 35 paintings covering four decades, Shanks is a complete master of his tools and his oil medium. He describes his meticulous rendering of figures, whether formal portraits or studio fantasies, as "humanist realism."

"Realism" couldn't be more on target, but "humanist"? I'm not so sure. This is one quality that Shanks' portraits in particular appear to lack. They're "realist" in their extraordinary verisimilitude, but they don't always convey "real life." A resident of Andalusia in Bucks County, Shanks, now in his mid-70s, has become recognized for portraits of international celebrities, beginning with Diana, Princess of Wales. Besides John Paul II, his subjects include Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti. This is a curious exhibition, however, because it contains relatively few formal portraits. A pensive Princess Diana, an imperious Baroness Thatcher, and a jolly John Paul II pretty much represent that aspect of Shanks' career. The bulk of his Michener subjects are what can be called "characters" - particularly a large cohort of female nudes and semi-nudes in exotic settings, including a contemporary Salome.

All but four of the 35 paintings are figurative; one that isn't depicts a white horse running on Catalina Island under a varicolored sky. I'd like to see more of this side of Shanks. This painting stands out not only for its atypical subject but also because it projects romantic mystery, compared with the forced exoticism common to many of the nudes. With the latter, Shanks seems to be reviving 19th-century orientalism - posing a female nude in a studio matrix of decorative ephemera such as peacock feathers, brass buckets, small statues, bold textiles, and lots of bracelets and rings. These images are like fanciful holograms, perfectly realized but emotionally and psychologically hollow.


If painting is supposed to be visual magic, then Shanks is the David Copperfield of painters. The show doesn't seem to have a theme, a sense of time, or any other organizational structure. It doesn't tell its audience much about Shanks or how he thinks about art. We must be content with marveling at his demonstrable skill and his celebrity. The Diana portrait is the only one in the show that gets beneath the surface of a likeness, that suggests personality or character. As for the pope, if you're expecting another Innocent X (Velazquez) or Paul III (Titian), you'll be disappointed.