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Max Ferguson’s Portraits Of His Father

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Max Ferguson: Painting My Father April 15–June 29, 2012 Hebrew Union College Museum One West 4th Street (between Broadway and Mercer) http://maxferguson.com/

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture. Viewers are literally obstructed in their attempt to “enter” the image, as Ferguson has cropped out the foreground and filled it with the deli counter. Yet every detail—from the hanging meats and the scales to the portrait of the man behind the counter and the ceiling tiles—is so carefully and lovingly rendered that one can’t help but want to linger despite the blocked entrance and lack of firm ground to stand upon.

Less well-known, but arguably even more visually arresting is Ferguson’s 2005 painting, My Father in Katz’s,which is part of his upcoming solo show at Hebrew Union College that opens next month. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, Richard (1912-2005), who wears a flat cap, sits alone at a table eating a sandwich. A Dr. Brown’s cream soda (with straw), ketchup and mustard containers, and a salt shaker look up at him from the table, and Ferguson, who cleverly scrawls his signature into the wall in the bottom left corner, captures an impressive array of textures. Ferguson finds common elements in the textures, though, and one of the wall patterns (which isn’t unlike a snake’s scaly skin) is echoed in the jacket Ferguson’s dad wears. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but the work is so realistic that one can practically smell the food.

Max Ferguson. “My Father in Katz’s.” 2005. Oil on panel. 16 x 20 inches. Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Even from a cursory glance at Ferguson’s personal website, it’s easy to see that he takes Jewish images seriously, since one of his headings under “portfolio” is devoted to Jewish works. They include Ratner (1996), a deli which is no longer in operation; Schapiro (1996), the no longer operating wine store on Rivington Street; Bagel Bakery (1998); Schindler (1995),which shows the marquee of the since closed Art Greenwich theater; Yonah Schimmel (1992), a knish bakery that is still in operation; Torah Scribe (1993), which depicts a bearded scribe writing a Torah scroll; and Matzo Bakery (1992). Works in other sections of the site—such as the drawing Butcher Shop (2003) and the oil painting Jerusalem Fish Vendor (2004)—could also appear in the section on Jewish art.

“Despite spending so much time in Jerusalem, I continue to paint primarily New York-themed imagery,” the artist notes in the Hebrew Union College press release. “I don’t want anyone ever saying about me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he was Jewish.’ With my Ellis Island name, people often assume I am not.” Ferguson adds that the exhibit, of 30 paintings he made of his father over three decades, coincides with what would have been his father’s 100th birthday.

Not all of the images of Ferguson’s father scream their faith as loudly as the other Jewish subjects. Saturday Night/Sunday Times, strictly speaking, has nothing Jewish about it, but the full-length portrait of Ferguson’s father receiving change from a street newspaper vendor after purchasing a New York Times certainly represents a New York ritual that will speak to many Jewish viewers. Ferguson often seems to treat props as seriously as he does figures, and this piece is no exception. The stacked copies of New York Daily News, Newsday, and New York Post are rendered with as much careful attention to detail as the texture of the figure’s skin.

Though it’d be a stretch (particularly in the absence of any indication on Ferguson’s part) to suggest that the artist was drawing upon a visual tradition of Annunciations or angelic appearances, it is interesting to note that the cropping of the newspaper seller’s arm—coupled with the spotlight that illuminates the two figures—conveys something more otherworldly than a simple monetary transaction.

Max Ferguson. “My Father on Fifth Avenue.” 2011. Oil on Panel. 9½ x 12 inches.

My Father on Fifth Avenue, by comparison, is hardly otherworldly. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, clad in comfortable shoes and a striped shirt, sits on a park bench reading the newspaper. Fallen leaves litter the ground at his feet, and the stone wall behind his back is an abstract mosaic of gray stones—perhaps the way one might envision the parted Red Sea. Many of Ferguson’s paintings, including this one, evoke the work of Edward Hopper, whose figures are often lonely and forlorn. But though Ferguson’s father sits alone without another soul in sight, he is so engrossed in his newspaper that he doesn’t seem to mind.

That’s not the same expression he has in My Father in the SubwayI, where Ferguson’s father is visible standing on the 28th Street subway platform through the train window. The viewer (and by association, the artist) presumably stands inside the No. 1 train. Ferguson’s father—dressed in a gray suit and carrying a black portfolio—looks tired, almost like Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman. As in some of Hopper’s works, the dynamic nature of the graffiti and other signage on the train directs the viewer’s attention away from the artist’s father, who is literally sliced horizontally by three of the subway window’s crossbars.

“My Father in the Subway III.” 1982. Oil on Panel. 18 x 22 inches.

In My Father at Mount Sinai, Ferguson’s dad lies on a hospital bed, with a cannula (tube) under his nose. The curtain in the foreground is a tallit, which suggests that the arm bands on the figure’s right arm might be phylacteries. Despite the bands and tube, Ferguson’s father wears a watch (perhaps suggesting the passage of time to the artist, who is a fan of 17th Century Dutch art, and thus, by extension, momento mori), and appears to be mid-speech. His gaze is directed right at the viewer, who is both his son and those who view his son’s painting.

“‘Honor your father.’ It stares back in black and white from Exodus, and for good measure in Deuteronomy as well,” Ferguson writes in an artist’s statement about the series on his father. “I guess this is my way of honoring him.”

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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