Artist Rick Fox does not have to travel far to find subjects to paint. He just gazes in the mirror.
The result is a growing collection of bold portraits that infuse light, shape, color and Rick’s perspective to reflect widely differing images of the same subject — himself.
“My first move could be painting two shapes, part of the nose and part of the cheek, and how they are butting up against each other, then build from there,” he said. “Sometimes I start with some kind of oval, but I know I have to be willing to blow that oval out so it expands and contracts as I’m going.”
The images in the mirror vary depending on lighting, the expression, angle (straight on or a sideways glance) or clothing. The images that appear on Fox’s canvas vary as well. Some resemble the typical portrait, some exaggerate his jowls or ears, some employ colors close to the tone of his own skin, others are splashed with vivid reds or greens or dabbed in dark shadows.
“What is so great about the human head is when you have different shapes colliding into each other, they can shift a millimeter and suddenly that expression on the face can change dramatically into a subtle smile or a frown if the eyebrows come down just a little bit,” he said.
With help from the 2022 Piscataqua Region Artist Advancement Grant, Fox will be able to work full-time expanding his gallery representation and his audience.
The $25,000 grant is one of the largest unrestricted grants awarded to a single artist in the country. Finalists for the 2022 award were Shaina Gates, who works in alternative and experimental photography, and Isabella Rotman, who creates comics, zines, drawings and installations. Each finalist was awarded $1,000.
Fox has taken a pause from his full-time teaching career to devote this year to painting. The grant will also provide the support for him to wear the many hats necessary to pursue more exhibitions in the region; secure additional gallery representation nationally and internationally; and give back to the community by working in partnership with a local nonprofit.
Fox experiences his reflections as landscapes, which he also paints.
“And like the terrain of the landscape, the heads come with the desire to organize relative positions of color shapes,” he said. “An ear needs to be a certain distance behind the cheek — much like some marsh grass catching light is behind a granite boulder. But what is different and very fun about painting a head are the unexpected and semi-conscious surprises of narrative and personality that come racing in.”
Thanks to those surprises, Fox said his head paintings are made “spontaneously and have followed their own mysterious logic.”
Until about two years ago, Fox primarily produced landscapes, but while painting at his favorite Seacoast locations as the COVID-19 pandemic began, he realized that old reflexes of simplifying and organizing were no longer working for him.
He wondered if radically simplifying the subject and working with controlled lighting for a while might provide the opportunity to reevaluate their complexity.
“I was thinking ‘I know a simple form — my head.’ So I got a big mirror, put in my studio and started working,” he said.
As Fox studies his reflection, he produces variations of the theme of head-in-space by intuitively translating countless bits of information into colliding colors and shapes. He calls them “tectonic plates of color” and relates the experience to the force of the shifting “tectonic” plates that form the Earth’s crust.
One of his favorite pieces is a grid of 25 heads. But new favorites constantly appear.
“Often, when I decide a painting is complete, that will be my favorite, but only for a short time,” he said.
Rick Fox is represented by Gallery NAGA in Boston and his work is on display at the Bowery Gallery in New York and Tregony Gallery in Cornwall, England.