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The Race Is On

Artist Neal Iwan wins, places and shows at Ghostprint Gallery.

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When you play the ponies, timing's everything. There's a sacred nuance to the system — a natural rhythm. The bet cannot be made on one intuition alone; it's the big picture that must be seen. A complex thread of interactions forever connects the start with the finish.

In “What are the Odds,” a series of paintings by Richmond artist and illustrator Neal Iwan, showing at Ghostprint Gallery, the race is documented down to the second.

“I viewed horses as a means to an end almost,” Iwan says of his latest subject matter. Not a passionate lover of the equine, the artist became interested in the animals while on a photo shoot at Colonial Downs race track. “I guess a lot of horse art you see is by people who loved horses first and then became artists,” he says. “But I am kind of the other way around with that.”

Having been hired to photograph the racing horses, he found himself immersed in the action. “When I went there the track photographer got me onto the track and I was actually on the turf when the horses were coming around doing the steeplechase — that was nuts,” he says. “There was nothing separating me from the horses — no rail, no nothing.”

From these photographs Iwan began working on this latest body of paintings, where his background as an illustrator assisted in his perspective. His choices of scenes are captivating in their content. The paintings don't feel as though they portray a sport of kings. There's no regal separation of the elite. The scenes are more the ground-level vision of the chase for the prize — a feeling of hope you get when it might be your horse in the lead while it could be yours in the rear. One's a hero, the other's a loser. Iwan's applied technique is crucial to making it all seem active.

“It is all oil paint that is diluted with linseed oil and I just draw it on there,” he says. “I don't use a pencil to draw my composition out or anything — I just draw it directly with a brush and then wipe it out with a dry brush and it gives it that nice speed effect.”

Working from photographs, he's able to show the intensity of the race as though it's a blurred still from a movie reel, thus encapsulating a length of time. “Being inspired by [English photographer Eadweard] Muybridge and all the artists and photographers who dabbled in trying to portray motion on the still image has always been a great interest to me,” Iwan says. “How do you really get that feeling? How do you really show speed?”   

His expertise in relaying moments in time is evident. Whether the image is of the start, a race in progress or a finished run, Iwan finds and holds the most affecting of scenarios.

“Just to go to these off-track betting places just to people watch, the people watching is really one of my favorite things,” Iwan says of the scene not depicted in his art, but the one offered by the viewer. “People all parked there just waiting for it to happen for them.” 

The fastest horse always wins, but that doesn't mean you will too.

“What are the Odds,” new works by Neal Iwan, is on display at Ghostprint Gallery, 220 W. Broad St., until May 1. For information call 344-1557 or visit ghostprintgallery.com.

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