Sunday, April 14, 2024

Vickrey Paintings Transfix Us at New Boca Museum Show

Look at just a small handful of Robert Vickrey’s egg tempera paintings and you’ll be able to recognize most of his work instantly. He is so unabashed about his recurring visual preoccupations – there are few paintings that don’t feature either nuns, balloons, butterflies, wall art, bicycles, bubbles, firecrackers, children gazing downward or some combination of these elements – that some may find him a four- or five-trick pony. Many of his pieces are so visually similar that they seem even redundant on first glance. But the small, piercing differences enforce their significance.

It’s these unusual deviations that make his paintings so penetrating and transfixing: They aren’t quite surrealism and they aren’t quite realism, existing in a sort of ether between the two styles, literally intermingling them in many cases. The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s new show, “Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism,” which runs through June 19, provides a remarkable overview of Vickrey’s 60-year career. It’s mounted thematically, rather than chronologically, to suggest thematic narratives. It opens with nuns and moves on to children with balloons, bicycles and chalk. Vickrey was scheduled to attend last week’s opening ceremony at the museum, but he died in April at age 84.

The selected works, which range from the early 1950s to the complex “Muriel’s Pavanne,” completed in 2011, form a remarkable sense of coherency divorced from age and time; they all appear to have been completed in a singular rush of youthful talent.

Vickrey is a master of light, shadow and reflection. “Bubbles” is one of the artist’s realist masterpieces, ravishing in the way he portrays light reflecting through a window and illuminating a cat, a child’s blond hair and the bubbles she’s creating. “Long, Long Shadows” depicts exactly what its title conveys: the immense shadows of bicycle wheels, dwarfing the actual bikes and their riders (All of Vickrey’s bicycle paintings situate the vehicle at angular geometric spaces, dividing the works’ open spaces in eye-catching ways).

I was especially fond of “Mask and Marionette,” which shows a girl standing in front of a store window. Through the glass, we see a number of recurring Vickrey marionette prototypes, including an angelic doll, a devil and a rabbit – frozen in place, desiring of freedom and desperate for connection. This painting, above all others, best displays the painter’s empathy and humanism for all things, real or imagined.

Ultimately, the nun paintings, inspired by the Daughters of Charity of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, are the most striking in their symbolic resonance. Most of Vickrey’s nuns are faceless, their humanness covered by the starch-white cornettes – a form of antiquated female headwear that many Daughters of Charity had to wear long after the raiment grew out of fashion. The cornettes resemble paper planes and birds in flight – symbolic, perhaps, for breaking free of the ascetic rigors of the sisters’ pious lifestyle. You could say that Vickrey’s cornettes are, like the faith they represent, both beautiful and constrictive.

The Boca Raton Museum of Art is at 501 Plaza Real. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.

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