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Getting to Know You

Painter Tom Papa finds commonality in the faces of friends.

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Apparently a devotee of Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund and one of the most well-known figurative painters today), Papa, like Freud, chooses to observe his subjects, at an almost uncomfortably close range. He captures his subjects with a subdued expression, to map the person rather than a passing emotion. And most like Freud, Papa makes paint seem to become flesh. It’s gooey and slippery, yet Papa manages to coax it in the right places, building up likenesses with believable depth.

“Locals” began with photographs of his subjects. Often catching blank stares and agape mouths, Papa’s muglike shots, according to him, point out mundane experiences his subjects share. Experience seems to be a common thread among these faces, but who cares if the experience is profound or mundane? It’s Papa’s honest, bare-bones approach, not thematic concern, that elevates his painting.

Though not quite flattering, these faces are lovingly portrayed. By the looks of the loose, thin paint, some of the images may have been executed with breakneck speed, but Papa gives his subjects qualities that set each apart. In “Heide” (painter Heide Trepanier), the subject, wearing a hat with earflaps, bears a resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh. In “Mary,” a portrait of printmaker Mary Holland, Papa lights up his subject’s face with an electric smirk. Each painting truthfully represents a person, not just an idealized image of one.

According to Papa, the time he spends wearing another hat, that of an attorney, affords him the opportunity to seriously observe human faces. Papa’s double life presents an intriguing aspect to his body of paintings. Not only has his study time with faces served him well formally — he clearly knows about flesh, how skin looks over muscle and bone, and the effects of gravity. His position also seems to have affected his deadpan delivery of his subjects. One wonders how these people would be represented if Papa were a schoolteacher or a barber.

As well as celebrating his subjects, Papa clearly enjoys the sheer act of painting. Paint appears to be applied quickly and without fuss. His medium expresses the transitory nature of everything that affects our perception of faces, from light to mood to time itself. That’s why the dazed looks on some of these faces are acceptable; the viewer understands that they are from a particular moment and not necessarily permanent. Not everyone will know these faces in “Locals,” but Papa clearly knows them well, and that’s what counts. S

Tom Papa’s “Locals” runs through May 31 at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St.

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