Joseph Lorusso cuts to the emotional core in his timeless scenes of everyday folk
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the October 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Here’s something you probably won’t see in a Joseph Lorusso café scene: a young woman at a table, head tilted downward at that familiar, ubiquitous angle, finger tapping on a cell-phone screen. What you’re likely to see instead are shiny lovelorn gazes, sloping shoulders, smiling whispers, or sleepy eyes, against a backdrop of vintage café wallpaper and amber light. It could be the present day or from any time in the past. That’s the point. The quiet drama of late-night affairs and melancholic musings amid wine glasses and coffee cups is timeless—and Lorusso likes it that way. “The scenes I depict are almost archetypal in a sense,” he observes. “They’re ones that most people in society can relate to.”
As he speaks, Lorusso sits in his Kansas City, MO, studio overlooking the nearby Kaw (also known as the Kansas) River, which flows into the Missouri. In an older, industrial part of town, the studio is part of the historic Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building, a repurposed, nine-story brick structure with a cobblestone walkway out front. Inside the entry hall still hangs the original livestock trading board that for decades, beginning more than a century ago, displayed cattle prices in chalk. It’s an appropriate setting for an artist whose imagery often conveys a sense of value and respect for the working man. His widely collected, award-winning paintings also are known for expressive rendering of longing, love, introspection, and tenderness among ordinary people like us.
While Lorusso continues to be attracted to many of the same subjects that have intrigued him throughout his career, the 48-year-old artist is aware of important ways his approach has shifted in recent years. He enjoys taking more chances with composition, color, and technique. As he does, he finds himself unraveling threads of inspiration to discover which are genuinely his and which remain from earlier years, when the achievements of such masters as John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec helped fuel his creative fire.
With a nonstop drive to evolve and grow as an artist, Lorusso never tires of studying great paintings of the past. He pays attention to the work of his contemporaries and engages in lively discussions with artist friends. He thoughtfully considers his personal response to what he sees, constantly refining his understanding of what it is that makes art great. His aim, as always, is to infuse his paintings with what he calls soul—the sometimes-ineffable quality that creates a compelling mood or emotional resonance and draws viewers in. Increasingly, he measures his own level of mastery by two touchstones: the power of viewers’ emotional connection with his art and how fully his paintings reflect a vision and execution that is truly his own.
Looking to towering artists of the past has been central to Lorusso’s relationship with art since his boyhood days. His parents, Italian immigrants in Chicago, took their son on several trips to their home country, where he was introduced to paintings by Italian masters. Later, while studying watercolor at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, he spent hours on end at the Art Institute of Chicago, absorbing both the technical and expressive qualities of artists he admired. What they had, he realized, was much more than exceptional skills in composition, color, and the application of paint. Every artist who held his regard had a way of opening an emotional door and inviting him in. The great illustrators, among his most important sources of inspiration, also taught him by example the power of story.
Lorusso’s hands-on training in emotive and narrative art included 10 years as an artist with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, where he also earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute. The experience helped develop his skills and confidence, and it focused his interest on portraiture and the figure. While much of his formal painting instruction was in watercolor, he gained an understanding of oils primarily through self-study and years of experience. As interest in his art began to expand, Lorusso left Hallmark in 1999 to pursue fine art full time.
“For the first eight or 10 years, a lot of my work tended to be on the somber side. I’m not a colorist; I’m more of a tonalist, so the colors were muted. It was more about mood,” Lorusso relates. Much of the subject matter that interested him—hard-working, down-to-earth men, for example—suggested a solemn, industrious tone. Growing numbers of collectors became drawn to these and other recurring themes, including his café scenes, rendered with ever more subtle refinement.
Then about five years ago, something on a deeper level started to change. He had his first museum show, and his first child, a daughter, was born, followed two years later by a second baby girl. The museum show marked a turning point, as Lorusso’s own recognition of his true artistic voice and the source of his distinctive style became clearer. And fatherhood rearranged his priorities, refocusing his creative output to devote more time and quality to each piece. At the same time, family life began to infuse his perspective with a new feeling of gentleness toward the world. This translated into an even greater inclination toward what he calls New Romanticism, a development represented in his solo show opening October 17 at Newbury Fine Arts in Boston, featuring more than two dozen new works.
“I see the innocence in my children and how they interact with the world, and it all has an impact on how I see life,” Lorusso says. “I’m still interested in thought-provoking imagery, but also in scenes that are more endearing, more sensitive and uplifting. I’ve really been enjoying being more romantically focused in my work.” This means themes of beauty and lovers, of course. Yet it also emerges in evocative, enigmatic qualities that add a touch of mystery to what otherwise might be a simple genre scene. In AFTER HOURS, for instance, a woman leans against a doorframe, her eyes directly engaging the viewer, the corners of her mouth upturned in what could be a slight, mischievous smile. Behind her a man stands in the shadowed doorway, lighting a cigarette, not looking at her. Do they know each other? What is she smiling about?
“For me, the beauty of narrative work, and the most effective approach, is suggestive and subtle,” Lorusso says. “I want it to be a point of departure. I don’t want it all spelled out. Sargent did some paintings that were almost cryptic. They’re playful; they lead you in.” As an example, Lorusso cites Sargent’s 1897 double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes. The vibrant young wife in casual walking clothes stands in front of her husband, whose face is half-obscured in shadow. The highly unconventional portrait offers subtle intimations about the wealthy New England couple that customary Victorian portraiture would not. This element of sophisticated, intentional innuendo has begun emerging more frequently in Lorusso’s art, inviting the viewer’s curiosity into the experience. “That’s a common thread for me,” he says. “Once the viewer is engaged, then the piece is complete, not before.”
Not all of Lorusso’s current imagery is “beauty and skipping through the daisies,” as he puts it. The more masculine energy of such pieces as LINEMEN presents stimulating compositional challenges, which he enjoys—this one earned four out of five stars on the artist’s self-critiquing scale. Two railroad workers carrying pick axes over their shoulders walk purposefully alongside an enormous steam engine. The men exude a proud, quiet determination and strength. For Lorusso, the image represents the dignity and invaluable contributions of everyday men employing their hands at hard work.
If the subjects in Lorusso’s paintings look like ordinary people, it’s because they are. Many of his models are friends or acquaintances who pose in scenes he sets up and photographs for reference. They’re not Photoshopped fantasy figures or Hollywood types. They feel real, with believable features, sometimes slightly red-tinged noses or weary eyes. Perhaps this is one reason viewers feel his works resonate so strongly. “I try to find interesting-looking people to use as models, people who have a look about them or an energy,” Lorusso says. “I’m not looking for idealized people. These are people who look like ‘us.’ I happen to find extreme beauty and interest, dignity and emotion, in our commonality.”
Still, the element of imagination, as a means of expressing the painter’s inner world in the moment, is just as much a part of the artistic process as composition, value, and light. “Artists have the luxury of being able to create the world we want to live in,” he says, smiling. “If I’m in a particular mood one day, I can paint a romantic scene. That’s a really special thing, because how many jobs are there where you get to do that?”
Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; Illume Gallery of Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Sirona Fine Art, Hallandale Beach, FL; Newbury Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Broadmoor Galleries, Colorado Springs, CO.
Featured in the October 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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