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art: Solo Figure

Richmond painter Milo Russell has spent his career perfecting one subject.


But why do they all look alike? The artist's use of large, almond, vacant eyes, long noses, unisex brown hair — despite the clothing signifiers — tends to flatten gender. A large part of this mystery can be explained by the fact that they are not real portraits; they are products of the artist's imagination. "I don't know where the figures come from," states Russell in the exhibit's catalog. "I just start with a little bit of brown paint and a little bit of blue paint, and I start messing around, and then these things come …"

Despite over 200 paintings in his oeuvre, Russell has really only been working on one portrait his entire career. Currently a professor emeritus of painting at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he taught full time from 1958 until 1985, the reportedly reclusive artist (he doesn't attend his own shows), locked into a formula for painting and, eccentrically, never shifted artistic gears. He admits as much, noting, "I've painted the same painting all my life — just variations on the same thing. It was good enough for Rembrandt, it's good enough for me."

Far from creating an artistic straitjacket, however, Russell's compositions derive from a modernist preoccupation with line, form and color that embraces boundaries and the ability to work within them. By placing careful perimeters on his approach to the canvas, he obtains a certain insular richness that is curiously not monotonous, but strange and alluring.

The figures' lack of identity and individualism is further underlined by a lack of title, suggesting certain ambivalence towards self-identity. One's sense of intrinsic self and ego is thwarted and that urban phenomenon of alienation, not only from others, but from one's own self-consciousness, is emphasized.

Another curious aspect of the works is the artist's apparent inability to leave them alone. Some of the paintings have been worked on for years, demonstrating Russell's frustration in reaching a self-declared level of perfection. Yet, in general, the works seem so complete, so hermetically sealed from further manipulation, that this hardly seems possible. There is one particular work, though, where a painterly abstraction and sketchiness do convey a sense of incompletion. A man in a suit in a sparsely furnished room is uncharacteristically made up of white, free-flowing lines that give him an unsettling ghostly effect. He is neither here nor there; he is a figment of the artist's mind, advancing and receding like an awkward specter caught between reality and fantasy.

Russell's paintings are as haunting as they are comfortable. The familiarity of home with plants, curtains and books, is subtly subverted by the vacuous androgynous stares of the figures within these comfortable spaces. Treated as one more still life, the figures remain tacitly removed, awkward, and reclusive and enduring. Perhaps they are portraits of the artist after all. S

Paintings by Milo Russell are currently on display at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St., until April 27. 643-1708

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