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Review: Sheldon show features early works of Edward Boccia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2013 - If you visited the Saint Louis University Museum of Art and caught the Edward Boccia exhibition before it came down on March 3, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Sheldon to view the artist’s earlier works found there. If you did not have a chance to see Boccia’s powerful, overflowing triptychs and large-scale paintings when they were at SLUMA, you have even more reason to take advantage of this second opportunity to explore the artist’s work.

SLUMA’s Boccia exhibit revealed the figurative expressionist work that the artist became known for in his later career. The 40 drawings and paintings at the Sheldon build toward that eventual end, but focus on a different side of the artist.

Boccia’s drawings come from the period in 1945 during which he was in Europe, serving in the US military in the final months of WW II. Boccia’s handwritten titles are scrawled on the corners of these ink drawings, French Trees, German Roots, Frenchman with Pipe, French Woman, A Small Cognac. It is easy to imagine the young Boccia finding a natural refuge from the dangerous work he had been assigned by seeking out life and following his curiosity. His empathetic nature is apparent in the curled lines that bring emotive intensity to his subject’s eyes and the tenderness of his treatment of them.

That he modeled his work after Max Beckmann is clear to anyone who has seen the work of both artists. The SLUMA show paid homage to the psychic tie that binds the two artists’ work by exhibiting the easel that Boccia inherited from Beckmann when he joined the faculty at Washington University not long after Beckmann left. Themes that Boccia would continue to develop throughout his later career appear in these early works. Beckmann’s enigmatic fish makes an appearance in an abstracted portrait from 1961. The allegorical references that follow Boccia’s move to St. Louis are a direct link to that relationship and to the artist’s lifelong exploration of biblical and mythological themes.

The Sheldon exhibit couples Boccia’s art with his later poetry. These word and image pairings portray an energetic engagement with life. His clear, direct verse adds further dimension to the collection. His paintings Battle and Capture, which are abstracted into geometrical forms that are informed by cubism, require interpretation. These images are vivid and heavily laden with hidden meaning. The adjacent poem, Artist at Work, begins with a clear and humorous description of a drawing as a battleground:

I have just drawn

One long line down the page.

To divide is to conquer.

Now I’m drawing a big circle.

I have ambushed the enemy.

I cut off his supplies

With my eraser…

Such playful articulation of his fluid intellectual process explains the depth of influences Boccia mined. Like the drawings from his youth, Boccia’s poetry provides an intimate connection to the artist. In combination with SLUMA’s retrospective iteration, Boccia’s drawings, paintings, poetry and life narrative tell a rich American story of the human drive for internal exploration and articulation of what is found within.

Sarah Hermes Griesbach is a freelance writer.

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