Burly, bearded, and well-groomed, the men Travis Ridlehuber paints display cultural markers of Western masculinity. Gracefully emerging from custom made wood panels—crafted to Travis’ specifications by a trusted East Bay wood artisan—these portraits are at once macho and delicate. This artist’s detailed brushwork takes rugged manliness and elevates it to a thing of breathtaking beauty.
Travis’ smooth compositions are a perfect marriage between the male figure and the wooden surface. Each structure is specifically chosen with careful consideration given to how the wood’s grain, color, and natural imperfections will elevate the subject.
In Travis’ portrait of world beard champ, Madison Rowley, each curl in Rowley’s luscious beard is distinctly painted. The pigment itself is lifted and pulled to form individual coils, tempting viewers to run their hands across its surface. Below Rowley’s masterfully painted whiskers, a dapper suit jacket effortlessly materializes from the wood base while a single gold button accentuates the subtle folds of its collar.
For his portraits, Travis typically works from selfies found online via Facebook and Instagram. Although he does on occasion personally photograph his subjects, Travis’ interest in selfie culture is rooted in the subject's active engagement in curating how he/she is portrayed. Sitting on a stool in his studio, Travis thoughtfully scratches his beard before delving further into why he works with selfies:
“We live in this very voyeuristic society where we’re constantly sharing images of ourselves. Selfies have replaced portraiture. Like, a hundred years ago you’d pay a lot of money to have someone take a photograph of you, or for someone to paint you. Now we’re constantly doing it ourselves. So, for me it’s like taking a crap portrait that we’re like constantly feeding out onto our Facebook feed, or Instagram, or whatever, and raising it to the level of Art with a capital A.”
Travis’ models are generally people he knows or has met. For him, portraiture extends beyond capturing the physical likeness of the sitter. If successful, each piece should not only look like the person, but also feel like him.
For the summer, Travis has curated This Swarthy Face, an exhibition showcasing the works of gay, contemporary portraiture artists hosted in The Midway’s Gods & Monsters gallery. This group show takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem by the same name, and presents works appreciating man in his various states of beauty and masculinity. The exhibition features pieces by Travis, as well as, Chris Lopez, Matthew Conway III, Karl Fielstorm, Greg Ridge, and Terry Furry.
When asked why he chose to organize an exhibition of all gay artists, Travis explains:
“One of the biggest reasons is [because] when I first started working on getting out there and showing my work, I reached out to a couple of gay artists and a couple of people who were working in the community and I got sort of this haughty attitude of like, ‘uh you’re not that important,’ or, ‘I really don’t have time to’ or just kinda of like dead silence. I felt like there should be some kind of camaraderie there, some kind of community, and I didn’t see any of that. The other part of it is, beyond wanting to create that for other artists, [. . .] portrait work and figurative work hasn’t been super popular. But, it’s coming back. [. . .] And I knew all of these people who were doing really cool work across the country and wouldn’t it be great to get them all together in the same place and present them out there to get people interested and see that people are actually doing this, and it’s really beautiful and interesting?”
Regarding the title of his show, Travis reveals:
“Walt Whitman is a famous American poet and he wrote over a period of time The Leaves of Grass. Most of it is pretty dusty stuff, but he wrote this group of poems, I don’t even know what the total is, referred to as ‘The Count Ones.’ At this point in history he was writing and publishing these poems in America about love and affection between men. It’s not sensual and it’s not erotic. It’s just about life, and running into each other, or holding hands in public at a point in time when you don’t really think that much about it being a part of our history. And especially not by someone who is considered a great american poet. So he wrote this group of poems and one of them is really great, it’s called, Behold This Swarthy Face. And, I just remember the very first time I read it I was like ‘Wow, this is really beautiful and touching but not overt. Yea, just lovely.’”
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The Midway Gallery’s Gods & Monsters space is dedicated to highlighting emerging artists and curators in conjunction with exhibitions in the main gallery space. This Swarthy Face will be opening simultaneously with LIVEWIRE, Friday, July 15th from 6pm to 10pm. Don't’ miss this opportunity to meet the artists and partake in music, live performance art, and complimentary food and drink.
To RSVP to This Swarthy Face, click here: https://www.facebook.com/events/606610259508509/
To learn more about Travis Ridlehuber, please visit: http://ridlehuber.com/
Follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dandybear/
Images provided by the artist
Written by Vanessa Wilson