Jon Imber

Nielsen Gallery

Jon Imber is a young Boston painter who began to attract attention in the late ’70s. Graduate study with Philip Guston exerted a lingering influence; Imber’s emotionally charged early work, which cast his family and friends in mythological dramas, was characterized by anatomical and spatial distortion. Because of this, he was mistakenly classed under the catchall rubric of neo-Expressionism, a term whose inappropriateness became increasingly clear as Imber shed exaggeration in favor of imagistic veracity through a series of huge, empathetic portraits.

This show included large-scale oil paintings and mid-sized pastels. Ten Broeck, 1985, a virtuosic landscape influenced by Vincent van Gogh, and several percipient portraits demonstrated Imber’s ability to imbue his subject with psychological depth via crisp drawing and taut paint handling. But the centerpiece of the show was a 1985 cycle of five paintings chronicling the range of emotions experienced in the loss of a lover. Here, Imber’s imaginative facilities, so strikingly apparent in his earliest work, are powerfully ascendant.

Filling the canvas, and set against dreamy, luminescent grounds, two intensely corporeal lovers are depicted in a series of unorthodox entanglements. In three of the canvases, the male hoists the often limp female on his weary back. He appears to be delivering her (and himself) to an unknown fate. He is oblique, absorbed in his cryptic task. The female is held upside down by the thighs, her head averted and her tensed left arm the only suggestion of life, in Carry; morbidly “sleeping” in Over the Shoulder; and piggyback, head lifted upward in anticipation, in Hang On.

Instilled with a heightened eroticism, the sculptural surfaces of Imber’s figures are composed of short brushstrokes that trace anatomical contours. Buttocks swell, muscles gleam, lips and eyelids catch the light. This augmented physicality is countered by the abstract, lustrous space surrounding the figures,and by the paintings’ ineffable subject, which may be described as an embodiment of yearning. Despite the awkward postures, these figures exude energy, as the paintings carry the viewer through an unfolding narrative of loss and regeneration—eros, rage, resignation, forgiveness, and finally, hope—a panoply of passion and privation incarnated in paint.

The bittersweet lovers of Captive, the final work in the cycle, summarize the ambiguous nature of intimacy Cropped at the waist and straining against the edges of the almost square canvas, they form a welded unit, she facing outward, he bent over in a guardian’s caress. Although the background is an almost corny meadow and sky, and the woman’s expression is tranquil, there’s an undertone of bereavement, a sense that despite the substantiality of an embrace, love itself is ephemeral, and may swiftly turn from ecstasy to imprisonment. Yet if the protective male is unable to ensure his lover’s presence, Imber has affectingly captured that elusive state of yearning intrinsic to both solitude and communion. From pain, he has fashioned something haunting, beautiful, and redemptive.

Nancy Stapen