By Beige Luciano-Adams Staff Writer
Posted: 11/29/2010 03:45:19 PM PST
PASADENA - In his work, Pasadena-based painter Myron Kaufman, 83, tends toward big themes - birth, sex, mortality, social ills, religion, politics. But it's his mischievous humor - his eye for the absurd details of human foible - that hook you.
His best inspirations are those that make him mad - like Dick Cheney, in his mind a natural parallel with Daddy Warbucks, who got him thinking deeply about Little Orphan Annie.
Often, there is a textual seed: the George Bernard Shaw play that led to his fascination with the extraordinary life of "poor old" Joan of Arc, or R. Crumb's seminal graphic novel, "Genesis," which inspired a 10-painting series on Old Testament characters.
His figures, typically wrought in loud colors from imagination or live models, are evocative, leveraged with humor and empathy.
"Here's a guy making love to a rubber model," he said, indicating a smallish acrylic-on-paper at his home studio. "I have a real tag on her leg here, it says: `Family Value, Inc. Cool wash. Hang dry."'
Pointing to one work, he explains, "This painting here really shows the competitive nature between men: Here's this small soul, who is looking at this girl, he really likes her, and this big guy has got her. And so he's kind of depressed."
He stops at another and says, "I have no idea what this one means, to tell you the truth."
But the Brooklyn-born Kaufman is always thinking, sifting through layers of meaning and unearthing new purpose - a practice helped by the discipline and organization he learned during a lifelong career as an electrical engineer.
"I think a lot about art and (ask), `what does it take to be an artist?"' he said. "I don't like to call myself an artist, I call myself a painter - because that's what I do. I don't know what an artist is yet, but it's something more profound than being a painter."
His supporters, including artist Quinton Bemiller, whom Kaufman identifies as a mentor, would disagree.
"My impression of him is that he's really always been an artist in addition to other things, but in the last five years that's really intensified for him," Bemiller said.
Kaufman is, in fact, only a few years into his artistic career; until recently, art had been a lifelong, weekend hobby he'd kept mostly to himself.
Now, Pasadena's Offramp Gallery represents him and he has a literary agent; he wants his children's books to be made into movies.
"He had such a natural, wonderful sense of color and composition," Offramp's Jane Chafin recalled of her first encounter with his work. "His sense of narrative was so strong; each picture told a story, you didn't have to know what it was, you could feel it was there and you wanted to ask questions."
Chafin calls Kaufman "very collectible" and points to his "unique perspective," but admits the unrefined, "childlike" quality that attracted her has inspired both hot and cold reception.
"Really though," said Chafin, "I don't know anyone else who is painting geriatric orgies, paintings about Dick Cheney and bible stories."
Not surprisingly, Kaufman came to his current revival by way of a traumatic rupture: After his wife died four years ago, he sold his house in Connecticut and moved to Pasadena to be near his son.
The effects of this trauma are evident in his work, as both shadow and illumination. Meanwhile, you get the sense that in all moments, Kaufman is thinking about his wife; he is thinking about his own mortality.
"That's a sign of my depression a little bit," he said about a painting of three garbled faces with the words "unwanted: dead or alive" scrawled above.
"This one's called `Going, Going, Gone,"' he said of another. "Fading out. That's kind of, I guess, a self-image of me."
You feel like you're fading out? I ask. "I am," he says plainly.
In a handful of pictures, Kaufman's wife appears smiling and beautiful, dark hair and lips casting their warmth about his sparsely furnished home.
While the benefits of a long life are evident in his work to anyone who looks - that impossibly keen mix of sharp humor executed with rounded wisdom - Kaufman pulls toward the past.
"Don't get old if you can help it," he counseled, adding: "Well, you have to get old, there's no alternative."
As for his art career, Kaufman can't hide his raw excitement and ambition - the kind so often associated with youth.
"I wanna do it," he said. "I'd do it no matter whether I showed or not. The truth is I've done it all these years. But I like showing my stuff; I get very nervous - but I like the idea and I'd like my stuff to become very successful. I'd like my books to be made into movies. It's a pipe dream, but anyway, that's what I would like to happen."