Stephen Bennett has been traveling for the last 15 years, doing portraits of the people he encounters. His style is known as “Photo-Realism,” with the portraits rendered from photographs. No tracing is involved; Bennett interprets the photographs and changes the coloration, using paint that he himself makes from raw pigment.
A number of Bennett’s paintings are currently on view at the James Gray Gallery at Bergamot Station. The exhibit, titled Face To Face, is presented through Bennett’s nonprofit organization, Faces of the World, which uses arts education and cultural exchange to spread an awareness of tolerance and international diversity.
The first painting one sees when entering Bennett’s section of the gallery is a portrait of a baby from Namibia. The title, “Somehow Very Sure,” is understandable when one looks at the baby’s expression: somewhat stern, with very intense eyes. Bennett says he saw the baby being held by his mother “in harsh sunlight” which made the child turn his eyes away. Bennett made some “squeaky noises” behind his camera, which caused the baby to look straight at him. “When the baby stared at me,” he added, “I knew I was looking into the eyes of an ancient and wise soul.”
The wise baby is characteristic of all of the portraits in Bennett’s exhibit: the face is captured in tight close-up, the style is as detailed as the photographs the paintings are based on, and the colors are subjective. Skin tones can be any color from blue to a rainbow blend of hues. Some faces look as though they are back-lit by lava lamps. The people are from some of the 23 countries Bennett has visited, including Tahiti, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia. Their ages vary from youth to old age, and Bennett documents the minute details of their appearance that may include flawed teeth, gnarled beard hair, and wrinkles.
Yet, despite the close-ups and realistic details, Bennett’s use of color – and his compassionate attitude about his subjects – renders the portraits beautiful. Some of the subjects would be beautiful by any standards, such as the young Tahitian girl with a white flower behind her right ear (to indicate that she is single), who gazes at us from a face with attractive features and a muted rainbow-tinted complexion.
But then there is the elderly Namibian woman who wears a white kerchief about her head. Her face is deeply wrinkled, a reminder that our surgery-obsessed American culture has been obliterating the visibility of wrinkles – how many models or actors with wrinkles do we see these days? In the Bennett painting we see the wrinkles bathed in the shimmer of the red, blue, and green tones of the neck beads the woman wears. We also see the happiness radiating from her face. The woman’s age has been made beautiful.
Bennett also paints portraits to order, and the exhibit includes one of his many portraits of American celebrities: a short-haired, beaming Sharon Stone (he’s also done Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Brokaw, and Senator Arlen Spector).
Other Stephen Bennett projects include art workshops for both children and adults and a forthcoming exhibit at the United Nations called “The Unity Mural Project.” The mural will be a “quilt” of self-portraits painted by children from Bennett’s workshops. The aim of the exhibit, and its corresponding interactive website, is to unite children around the world through art.
Face To Face continues at the James Gray Gallery until December 16. For more information about Faces of the World, Inc., go to facesoftheworld.net.