Lisa Bryson is an established American contemporary figurative painter. In 2017, the same year as earning her Master of Fine Arts in Painting and a Teaching Fellowship from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Lisa’s work was exhibited in the highly competitive Manifest International Exhibition Master Pieces. In 2018 she was awarded the prestigious Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation grant in painting.
As an artist she respects the nature of her chosen medium, subject matter and approach. However, she is acutely aware that in doing so she may be judged as being out of step with the contemporary art scene, a perception she will keenly refute. She cautions critics not to dismiss figurative work as traditional or purely representational, as contemporary concepts are often present and speak of current culture and experience. Now that experimental conceptual work is no longer new and shiny, and can be judged as a valid approach rather than beating a new path, there is a ground swell of opinion shifting perceptions about contemporary figurative work. Traditional studio practice and conceptual treatise have never been mutually exclusive, and Lisa Bryson’s work is a case in point.
She explains, “The mastery of the past is continually recalibrated into our current visual culture vernacular. Re-interpreting, appropriation are common contemporary art practices, such as, Marko Velk’s The Retriever re-interprets Francis Bacon’s assimilation of Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. These actions are mirrored in my work. Rembrandt, Goya, Freud, Bacon, Schiele, Kollwitz, historical mentors resonate in how I present the psychology of human experience. The work, however, does not reside in the past; content alongside inspiration derived from such artists as Alex Kanevsky, Sophie Jodoin, and Anne Gale ensure relevancy. We can, as artists, utilize the past, while questioning the present to perpetuate a relevant, dynamic visual vocabulary that informs and possibly forms our future.”
Lisa Bryson’s work articulates human experience in a moment of time, pregnancy, birth, aging, and isolation. This is set within the pervasive context of how social media is changing the way we communicate and experience the world. She says, “In an era of high speed, real-time global communication (texting, instant messaging, social media), the art of interpersonal (face-to-face) communication has greatly changed. Public is the new private, and conversation is technology driven. The practice of social networking on portable devices, in common public settings, is the norm in contemporary society. Ease of access informs popular culture; appropriation and reinterpretation are postmodern practices that permeate all facets of society. Lines are blurred. Connectivity in tandem with appropriation is presumed ubiquitous, however, the flipside, if acknowledged, disassociation and lack of true identity also exist. The intent for the work, through direct observation and documentation, is to redefine and challenge societal norms and social interactions.”
Lisa Bryson’s paintings express the search for a transient moment of clarity in the milieu of noise. In an interview for the National Association of Women Artists, she explains her intent. “My work fractures the human form, reaches below the surface into the psychological, addressing issues of physical abuse, victimization, isolation and fear. I remain enthralled by the human figure, but am driven to find ways to expand on figurative representation as it pertains to our current trends and contemporary visual culture.
For Carla O’Connor composition is key. She often talks about making shapes, creating and shifting balance, as a way to take the viewer on a journey of engagement with the painting. Much of what she discusses would strike a chord with abstract painters. Although she uses abstraction, she is at heart a figurative painter. Her preference to discuss her work in terms of structure and technique, before narrative and symbolism, is bore from her classical training and long career teaching, rather than a lack of connection to her subject.
The figure is what she has always drawn and what she knows best, and her use of compositional devices and technical skill are employed to connect us to the subject. Her work expresses the passing of time, and lives lived through a series of experiences - mundane to remarkable.
She is always aware that her imagery is constructed through mark making and the physical act of painting, and that the act of creating is never completely divorced from the resulting artwork. What’s more she enjoys the process and unexpected turns a work takes as it moves through concept to resolution.
The human form has been the touchstone of my art from my earliest training. I strive to combine the three-dimensional figurative form with the two-dimensional abstract surround. By using the basic gesture of a traditional pose, I hope to integrate semi-representational figures onto the pictorial space using hand, mind and heart without mechanical aids.
There is usually a seed of an idea or a bit of a plan when I begin, but I am mostly directed by the work as it progresses. It is a dialogue, a give and take, of sorting puzzles, discovering solutions and trying to stay in the process as long as possible. I resist the tendency to visualize the final image. I work with gouache and watercolor in layers of thick and thin color, lifting and layering the surface with lines - curved and straight, unique shapes, varied textures, and strong contrasts within a thoughtful composition.
My work addresses the passage of time - the human response to the internal and external events that change and shape our lives. The work has evolved like a continuous spiral, always circling around to a new beginning and provides me with a visual narrative to express all those moments and experiences—both minuscule and monumental. It is my means to communicate a personal vision into the strengths and fragility of life.
Michelle Gregor is a contemporary figurative artist. When describing her work, it is easy to fall into a list of dichotomic elements. Her work exists in the borderland between representation and abstraction, with the figure as her main subject. Her sculpture has weight and scale that feels monumental, but it is also an expression of fragility and beauty. There is evident reverence for the work of artists that influence her, but she clearly beats her own path. She is grounded by her connection to the Bay Area and the relevance of the Bay Area Figurative Movement in her work, but her sculpture reverberates with international, particularly European, influences. It is her ability to weave these different narratives through her aesthetic that makes her one of the most highly regarded second-generation sculptors of the Bay Area Figurative Movement working today, and one of the most important women ceramic artists working in the US.
In examining Michelle Gregor’s work and career there are two strong narratives. It is important to recognize that they are not separate, but interwoven aspects of the artist’s life. Her connection to a chosen location and associated art community form the roots of the tree. This has fed into everything she has achieved but is not the whole story. Her love of museums, need to travel, experience, and learn has enhanced her perspective, and forms the architecture that supports the branches of the tree.
Michelle Gregor identifies strongly as a Bay Area artist. A third -generation San Franciscan, she received a liberal arts education from the University of California System during a time she describes as “golden age” for education in California. She began studying ceramics at the UC Santa Barbara, and transferred to complete her undergraduate studies UC Santa Cruz. Here she studied ceramics, printmaking, Eastern religion and French symbolist poetry. At the time she arrived at UC Santa Cruz, the ceramic department was in the process of closing, and she and small group of other students used two remaining old salt kilns, next to which they had to build a makeshift studio with the aid of a Chancellor’s Grant. This was a period that allowed a lot of self-direction and experimentation.
After graduating she moved back to San Francisco and found a place to continue working in Ruby O’Burke’s studio in Castro. This was a large Victorian house split into a labyrinth of 10 x 10 ft artist studios. It was here she first met working artists, such as potter, Tammy Burwell. At the time Gregor was still having to work another job to support her studio practice. The Castro in 1983 was vibrant and inspiring, and she claimed this colony of artists as her chosen family.
Feeling the need for better resources to develop her work she attended San Francisco State, where she earned her MFA. Here she was able to better focus her aesthetic approach under the mentoring of Stephen DeStaebler, and discipline of David Kuraoka. DeSaebler had a profound influence on the direction of Gregor’s work, as did other artists of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, such as Richard Diebenkorn, Manuel Neri and David Park.
When she arrived at SF State, she was mostly creating her sculpture from large wheel-thrown forms. She was also working to support herself as a production potter in the East Bay. She used these skills to throw large cylindrical pots, which she would manipulate, with the addition of human or animal figures, into non-functional forms. By the time she completed her MFA she had moved away from the thrown vessel in favor of solid-built sculptural work. This is also when the human form became the focus of her creative dialogue. She now reflects that, “The figure has served as the best method of transportation throughout my many years of practice…. As a source, it seems infinite”
Following graduation Gregor remained in San Francisco and began teaching, first at Touchstone Art Center, then as an artist in residence for the San Francisco Unified School District. She became head of the Ceramics Department at San Jose City College in 2002. Here she continues to influence future Bay Area artists, just as she was mentored by the generation before her.
Gregor acknowledges the legacy of the Bay Area Funk artists such as Robert Arneson, who pioneered the use of ceramics in fine art, and established California as an epicenter of that activity. However, she is different from other Bay Area ceramic artists in her painterly approach to form and surface. It is when we begin to explore the artist’s other influences that the narrative moves away from California.
A passion for art history and museums has led Michelle Gregor to travel widely in pursuit of experiential learning. She has travelled through Southeast Asia and takes an annual trip to Europe to visit museums of art. Armed with her sketch book she spends hours sketching the exhibits. Drawing is an important part of Gregor’s process, but there is a clear distinction between her activity of drawing from life and the gestural mark making she uses in her work. This sketching is an aide-mémoire and a mark of respect, rather than a collection of source material for replication. The experience of the artwork is what gives her energy. To return to the earlier tree analogy… the experience is absorbed much like a plant draws energy through photosynthesis of light.
This absorption of knowledge and experience is demonstrated through every aspect of her work. She uses large block shapes and tears and pulls the clay, preserving the cut of the wire and tool marks in the tradition of truth to materials, a belief that form should be inseparably related to the material in which it is made. This concept came to the forefront of aesthetic discussions in the 1930s and is particularly associated with Henry Moore. Her surface is then built up in soft washes of color with pops of color evocative of the impressionists’ pallet. The boldness of her application is influenced by abstract expressionism of the 1950s. There is a sensibility in her work that is reminiscent of classical sculpture. Her work is the synthesis of everything she has been taught, has learned and has experienced, and it has gravitas.