GENERATIONS: MENTOR TO FATHER TO SON
By Peter Frank
However much we inherit from many, our strongest lineages come down through blood and soul – soul in this case comprising heart and brain. Our fathers (and, as this exhibition is literally about patrimony, we’ll keep the references male) can be our sires, but can be our teachers no less – and vice versa. The child is father to the man because the child is the teacher of the man-to-be. And the actual teacher builds the bridge across which the child-student crosses over into manhood (even when the student has already reached legal majority). Thus, an exhibition that traces three generations of artists can begin with a father and end with a student – or, as in this case, begin with a teacher and end with a son.
The teacher must be singular in his influence to be regarded by the student as a fatherly surrogate. That was the effect Peter Bodnar had on Tom Lieber when the latter studied with the former. Bodnar (himself a “Jr.”) had already been teaching at the University of Illinois for decades when Lieber arrived at the school at the end of the 1960s. Like so many U of I painting students before and since, Lieber came under Bodnar’s thrall and to this day remains gratefully in it. Enchanted at once by Bodnar’s art, insight into art and life, generosity, and gently eccentric persona, Lieber came to believe that everything he learned about art and art-making he was enabled to learn by Bodnar. Bodnar was the gateway to Lieber’s self-recognition as an artist.
At a glance, little seems to relate Bodnar’s painting to Lieber’s. The latter painter works in a manner loosely descended from abstract expressionism, expansive, gestural, and atmospheric, while his mentor’s style – even more distantly related to surrealism – is intimate, finely wrought, and almost jewel-like. Lieber’s palette is broad, while Bodnar works with few colors besides black and red. If Lieber’s canvases suggest any representation, it is of land- and seascape (appropriately enough for an artist who has worked most of his career in the San Francisco Bay Area and Kaua’i); Bodnar’s marvelously decorous lines, on the other hand, seem to describe living creatures (including humans) in the most endearingly stylized ways, almost to the point of notation. In another epoch, Lieber would have been painting church frescoes while Bodnar would have been illuminating manuscripts.
But the muralist has learned a lot from the illuminator – about rhythmic composition, about the luminosity of color, about depth of field, about the vast formal and thematic inspiration to be derived from all human artifacture,and generally about looking at the world as an endless source of visual stimulus and trusting one’s eye to grasp that stimulus and translate it into sensibility. Lieber’s native chops are considerable, but he arguably would not have turned them to his advantage to the extent that he has had he been subject to instruction less revelatory than Bodnar’s.
Lieber’s success has been considerable, and he is well known and respected throughout the country and in many other parts of the world. It frustrates him that his mentor has not enjoyed the same exposure and accolade.
Bodnar’s work is, if anything, even more distinctive and compelling than his student’s; indeed, although it bears some superficial resemblance to mid-American Funk art (notably that produced in nearby Chicago) and, more recently, to more cartoony versions of “Pop surrealism” (a/k/a “lowbrow” or “newbrow” art), it is quite like nothing else produced by any artist anywhere on the planet. Perhaps this solitary quality, this uniqueness, is exactly what estranges Bodnar’s painting from the public it deserves. As least as likely, however, is Bodnar’s own modesty, his refusal to compete in the admittedly tiresome commercial and museological realms of his métier, and above all his dedication, to a fault, to his teaching. He has sacrificed his public face for the sake of his mentorship.
Having benefited from the guidance of such a quasi-renunciate guru, Lieber now finds himself the progenitor of similarly vigorous talent. Just as Bodnar himself boasts accomplished artistic progeny (e.g. painter son Peter III), Lieber’s kids have found themselves early off the mark as artists. Daughter Lila Loo threatens to make a splash in the world of performance – literally, given her preoccupation with aquatic themes – while son Leaf displays an uncanny way with line and color in his own pictures (where, again, a fascination with mermaids abounds).
I describe that way as “uncanny” as its sureness and suppleness hardly befit an artist all of ten years old. Leaf Lieber has been peering over his father’s shoulder since the age of two, He has also been studying with ferocious intensity the new generation of animators, stylists such as Tim Burton who know how to tell a story by commanding unique visual styles that rely on, but do not fall victim to, a baroquely grotesque sinuousness. As a result, the visual concatenations of the latest Lieber, fanciful but tough, hold their own amidst the color explosions and lush, meandering lines of his father’s paintings, and even amidst the gnarled, glowing confections his father’s teacher has produced for over a half century. What artists generate, then, is not just art, but other artists. They propagate their kind as much through example as through DNA. We’re bent towards art in the womb, but we make art as a result of seeing art made. The Bodnar-to-Lieber-to-Lieber relay describes only one small network among the myriad comprising the history of art; but still, it is thrilling to see it play out on a gallery’s walls.
Peter Frank is Editor of THE magazine Los Angeles and Senior Curator at the Riverside [CA] Art Museum.