Last fall, Bud Lavery showed his uncannily realistic paintings of crackers, cookies and pretzels at Kingston’s Storefront Gallery, and now he has tackled the bagel. “The Art of the Bagel,” which features seven 12-by-12-inch framed paintings, each depicting a single bagel, opens at the Bakery in New Paltz on June 17. The bagels are depicted straight on, as if they were in an advertisement, against a black background, and each is a different kind, including sesame, cinnamon/raisin and poppyseed.
Lavery, who resides in a 19th-century farmhouse, complete with apple orchard, in Highland, notes in his artist’s statement that he has long felt an affection for the bagel. “Growing up in a quintessentially WASP household, my introduction to the bagel came a little late in life: I sampled my first on a St. Patrick’s Day in my early teens – and it was dyed green. But despite the Gaelic disguise, the bagel could not hide its essential greatness, and so began a lifelong love affair.” Yet one suspects that as a subject for a series, it was not so much the taste but the round form with the hole in the middle and interesting texture and the pop appeal of immortalizing such an everyday, ephemeral object that appealed to him.
The graphic crispness of the images reflects Lavery’s talents as a graphic designer, and alludes to their source mainly in photography. Indeed, Lavery was partner in a successful graphic design firm based in the City for several decades. His poster depicting a series of camels silhouetted against a smoldering sky for the American Museum of Natural History’s “Traveling the Silk Road” exhibit in 2010 popped up all over the City. Other high-profile commissions include the poster for the 1980s indie classic Swimming to Cambodia, featuring the late monologist Spaulding Gray.
But Lavery’s bagels also embody a meticulous realism, in which the artist lovingly portrays every crevice and seam of browned, shiny crust, wrinkled raisin, salt crystal, tiny sesame seed and the oblong negative space, distinctive in each painting, described by each center hole. A gentle, diffuse light, evocative of a 17th-century Dutch still life – as is the striking black background, which on closer inspection is not flat but atmospheric – describes the doughnutlike curves of each doughy form. In his lavish attention to each object, Lavery does for the eye what the baker does for the stomach, satisfying our hunger for clarity and form as well as our pleasure in subtle differences.
The format of the series, besides evoking the repetitions of the Pop Art of Warhol and Jasper Johns, allows us to contemplate the bagel as object, the uniformity of its manufactured aspect and the variables that emerge in the baking process. His trompe l’oeil depictions are both matter-of-fact and mysterious, surrealistic in their combination of the literal (each bagel is life-sized) and fantastic (the ambiguity of their position in space). Their stark simplicity and honestly rendered details are also reminiscent of American folk art.
As we sat in the orchard on a gorgeous afternoon, the sweep of the broad, leafy valley and the distant pinnacle of the tower atop the Shawangunks visible in the distance, sipping the delicious cider that he and his partner, Paul Phillips, pressed last fall from their own JonaMac apples, Lavery told me how he’d learned his Old Master technique when he was a student at the School of Visual Arts back in the 1970s. After his career as a graphic designer took off, he didn’t touch his paintbox until a few years ago, when he used those same tubes of paint to make a small painting of peas and carrots (he chose the subject because he wanted to submit a work to a show at the Arts Society of Kingston, whose theme was “Green”). That painting sold, and Lavery has been pursuing his newfound love – and selling more work – ever since.
“The Art of the Bagel: Paintings by Bud Lavery,” June 17-July 16, The Bakery, 13a North Front Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8840.