Harry Carmean’s Nudes to Show at Westmont
by Michael Cervin
Art is a solitary business. You confront the canvas alone,” Harry Carmean said. Carmean, who has a fanatical devotion to drawing the human form, is considered to be one of the finest figure painters alive. Thus it’s exciting to see that a retrospective of his sketches of nudes is opening today, Thursday, January 18, at Reynolds Gallery at Westmont College. The show spans Carmean’s work from 1964 to 1999, and in addition to Carmean’s 13 drawings, there are another five by his wife, Miriam Slater.
It may seem surprising that Westmont, a conservative Christian school, would exhibit a series of nudes, but the college art program has offered figure drawing for five years, and ultimately, this showing of Carmean and Slater’s work is intended as a way for those life-drawing students to learn from established artists. After studying at the Art Center in Los Angeles under the charismatic Lorser Feitelson (who cofounded Post-Surrealism), Carmean returned there to teach for 43 years. He has earned the respect of galleries, critics, and collectors due to his mastery of the human form; the Bacara Resort and Spa, for example, purchased one of Carmean’s paintings for their restaurant two years ago.
Carmean is always eager to discuss his process and “the Greek emphasis on form” he employs. In describing his drawings — some of which are pure black and white, and others of which are referred to as tones, because of their restricted use of color — Carmean said he sees them as studies. Watching Carmean draw, one notices that, while he may now be a master draughtsman, he remains ever the student. I had the opportunity to watch him work at his studio in the desert last year as he sketched a nude model. His use of pencil and charcoal is delicate, yet forceful. The simplest of lines is executed with a combination of abandon and thought. For example, Carmean speaks about the “rhythm and counter-rhythm” of his strokes, and of the “tempo” of a line as it begins at a woman’s shoulder, then curves into the shape of her hip. The success of Carmean’s work owes much to this habitual alternation of effects.
“I compose in contrasts,” he said, “in the same way we live with one thing counterbalancing another: the sharp with the soft, the straight with the curve, the even with the uneven, and the quiet with the loud.” The current show is filled with examples of Carmean’s characteristic counterbalances. The harsh line of a spine of a man is balanced by his rounded shoulders, his twisting torso turning away from straightened legs.
Carmean’s wife attributes Westmont’s decision to host this retrospective of nude drawings to “forward thinking.” Slater said she sees the classic style of rendering the human form as coming back into vogue, and feels the figures she and her husband draw are “beyond trends.” These drawings, intended to show the “nuts and bolts” of figure work, as Slater put it, nevertheless make for a stunning, thoroughly finished show.
However, there are some things you won’t be seeing at the Reynolds Gallery: the so-called coffee cup sketches Carmean and Slater have passed back and forth to each other for years. These quickly drawn sketches are quite sexually explicit — nudes doing very nude things. After six decades, Carmean still has a taste for the risqué and continues to enjoy the process and the fun of it all. The canvas may have to be confronted alone, but the beauty of the human form is something we can all share.