Artist Buddy Nestor’s intense portraits of contemporary female artists provoke visceral reactions with anyone who encounters them. Large and looming, set side by side within a gallery, the distorted faces materialize as ghostly and horrific as if conjured up from the supernatural realm. Joined beneath the title, ‘Every Girl Goes To Hell,’ the ongoing series appears beautiful and repulsive; an unsettling paradox rarely found. Recently we were able to talk to Buddy about his work as he delves into the deeper meanings of his psychological x-rays
The paintings have a distinctly horrific tone and many people have a strong reaction to them. Is this something you set out to accomplish?
I’m sure some people will think they are horrific, but that isn’t exactly what I’m trying to accomplish. That word makes me think of Zombies eating people and Slashers films from the 80’s. I want the images to pierce into the mind of the viewer and stay with them. Unsettling, might be the word I would use. Hopefully, when someone sees my work for the first time, it knocks them out of their daily routine, and forces them to think differently. This reaction can only happen if the viewer identifies personally with the image. I don’t know anyone that is completely satisfied with life. Our economy is in the toilet, we’re in multiple wars, people are losing the jobs and their homes, etc. So, painting puppies running through fields of flowers wouldn’t be an accurate depiction general feeling of what it’s like to be a human in my part of the U.S. There are certainly people that would question my sanity, because of the work I create. But, I think I’m just painting an honest portrait of the present state of humanity.The feedback I get from my work is always surprising. People interpret the paintings through their own visual/mental filter. I’ve heard of kids crying and covering their eyes. People have told me about weird dreams where everyone looked like my portraits. I’ve been asked multiple times if the project was some kind of ex-girlfriend revenge trip. It’s not. I’ve also heard serial killer. Wrong! There are also people that could care less. The interpretations are really varied, but they are all entertaining.
Carrie Ann Baade
You’ve discussed how the portraits can be seen as psychological x-rays, focusing on the distorted inner landscapes of the subjects. Can you discuss this further?
I went through a long period where I was meditating on a regular basis, for a clear mind and stress control. During this period I was exposed to countless paintings of enlightened humans. All with floating symbols and sacred geometries floating from their bodies and minds. They were all absolutely beautiful. The bummer is that I never reached enlightenment. I was conflicted. I’d meditate, then smoke a cigarette and watch the murder rate climb on the news, drink a beer, and listen to hate filled music (I still believe loud music can take people to a very spiritual place). I wanted to portray that conflict by creating a spiritual portrait of someone attempting enlightment while getting serious resistance from life. I figured there were way more people out there with spiritual conflict than enlightened beings. At that time, I was working on abstractions that depicted stress and inner landscapes revealing diseases induced by stress. So, I married the two ideas and started creating portraits. I don’t know the spiritual ideals of each of the subjects, but I certainly believe in the soul. The results are portraits containing real physical elements and unveiled souls marred by stress.
How much of the actual subject’s personality are you exploring in the work?
None. I’m doing what any other representational portrait artist in the past, I’m using the value shapes created by the light at the moment the photo was taken. I use them very loosely and leave most of my mistakes. Then I bend the information on the canvas to create an unsettling tone. I continue to work on each piece until the forms are balanced, there are no bothersome areas, and then I hear a sound when I look at it. The sound is like a tuning fork struck in the next room. It’s sounds goofy, but it happens. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. The names of each model are used as the name for each piece. I think it changes the way the viewer accepts the piece by grounding it in reality by using the name. They also might be disregarded easier if they weren’t presented as real people. For example, if I painted a fairly unrecognizable portrait of Jessica Alba, but called it “Human #25” instead of using her name, it would be seen very differently and it would be far less powerful without the attachment to reality.
How do you choose your subjects? I noticed many, but not all of them, are living, contemporary female artists.
When I started doing portraits, about ten years ago, I used photos of my friends and family because they were available. The same is true with the body of work I started about three years ago. The models were local friends and some of their daughters, but as I got more excited about the results, models became harder to come by. Apparently, the local ladies weren’t that excited to see their faces enlarged and bent beyond recognition. At that point, I was working completely outside of the art community. Scott Cranmer, a friend from Rutgers art classes, and I talked about painting daily, but we were totally isolated. I didn’t really know anyone working in the arts. I was completely bummed out when the project was halted by a lack of subjects. So I crossed my fingers and asked a few female artists if they would help me out and send some head shots. The response was great. Since then, I’ve worked mostly on women in the arts community, but not exclusively. I’m sure I’ll continue to paint my wife a few times a year. I really want to paint my mother and my grandmother again.
How well do you know these people personally and does this affect how you paint their portrait?
It varies immensely. I’ve been married to my wife for 14 years, so I know her extremely well. Some of the artists, I haven’t corresponded with at all, aside from asking them if they’d be interested in sending me photos. When I’m working on an artist, whose work I really love, it adds a different kind of pressure, than working on a friend from across the street. Knowing my work will be critiqued by one of my heroes can be painful. However, my local friends will see the work for the first time while I’m there, but I normally get a kick out of that.
Why do you choose to focus your work on women?
Portraits of woman have been used in the past……….for artists to develop or convey a style, like a bowl of fruit or a bouquet of flowers. But I wanted to explore human psychology. Physically and emotionally, females are way more mysterious to me. They are really complex. The men I know are fairly simple. They need food, play, work, sex, and maybe some beer and they are fairly content. Women are not that way.I have done portraits of men, but I don’t plan to focus on them yet.
Can you describe your process?
I ground the entire canvas with a mid gray. Then I spray paint a three color under painting of the figure with white, gray, and black. I move onto brushing in gray values mixed with primaries with a sand yellow. At this point I try to move as fast as possible without worrying about mistakes, because they are all mistakes. I throw paint and finger paint to create the distortions, without any matte or glazing medium. At this point I usually spray paint a bit to bring the values back to reality. Then, I’ll sand out any areas that aren’t working to reveal the texture underneath. Then I mix matte medium with satin varnish to do layers of glazing. When my palette dries I normally draw onto the paint to create new problems or information to work with. I’ll add some red blobs with my fingers, most of which will wind up sanded out or painted over. Then I add details until it’s complete.My limited color palette comes from years of creating images that didn’t work. I continued to change my color choices, until I found one that worked about three years ago. When I lay out a palette, I use seven shades of gray, and primaries, True Blue, True Red, and Sand Yellow. It’s simple and gives me all of the tools I need.
If you’re unable to photograph your subject, I know that you have a very specific set of instructions for how you like your reference material to be shot. How important are these photos to your work?
The lighting is really important to add dimension and help make the final product look a bit like the model. The mug shot style removes any implied emotion. It also makes the work confrontational for the viewer, like a quiet moment alone, staring into a mirror.
What’s next for you?
I’m really excited to have a full show schedule for 2011. I’ll be contributing to a bunch of great group shows and I have a solo show at Hyaena Gallery in July. I’m also curating a group show at Black Vulture Gallery in Philadelphia. The opening is set for the first Friday in June.