For “Front and Back,” Julian Pace focuses upon the broad bodies of professional basketball players, a subject he has spent many years capturing. And yet, for the artist, this choice of subject is somewhat arbitrary. While some viewers may be drawn to depictions of the celebrated athletes, to Pace, the men captured have a simple use function: to allow Pace to toy with the limits of composition and form in an iterative process of doing and re-doing, from sketch to painting to even more painting.
Although stylized with deep shadows and darkened lines, and exaggerated with enlarged torsos and epic arms, the figures retain a sense of humanity and even vulnerability in the exhibition’s large-scale oil and acrylic paintings as well as the colored pencil and gouache on paper pieces. In Ewing, 2022, the greatest center in Knicks history appears subtly contemplative, his pink cheeks lending him a sweet, childlike air. More cocky-looking individuals, such as Pace’s rendering of an angry-seeming Larry Bird, are oddly humanized by the artist’s inclusion of the player’s backside.
Yao Ming’s enormous shoulders make him look particularly hulking, and yet, a shadow on his cheek, a bit scar-like, reminds us of his frailty. The players Pace has chosen to capture, such as Shawn Kemp, Dennis Rodman, and Charles Barkley, are or were the best of the best. They are strong— inflatedly, inaccurately strong in the works in this show. But when we see The Toronto Raptors’ Charles Oakley look anxiously off to the side in Big Raptors, 2023, we remember he is both larger-than-life, and just simply a man.
The drawings and paintings in “Front and Back” are fun: bold colors, bold style. The squiggle line backdrops of certain paintings add levity and dynamism to the scenes. There is even a hint of art deco in Bird’s hair, Rodman’s forehead, and Kobe Bryant’s cheekbones. We remember the rush of the game in these portraits, and also, isolated, the individual story as told by Pace’s careful, loving strokes.