Life is a carnival
Painter creates a world of Venetian revelry, starring a crafty clown
Carnival in Venice: Revelers in costumes of all colors are gathered in a piazza. A lady in pink and blue holds a fan and a note sealed with a bright red ribbon, her other hand kissed by a gentleman in a three-cornered hat.
To the left, a dancer wearing a golden mask and a turban crowned with a crescent moon strikes a pose. A bright red devil stands far off to the side. A man in a pointy yellow hat stares directly at the viewer. In a corner is the face of a lady with a mysterious sad expression.
"Finale" is the type of painting that is worth well over a thousand words. The activity is overwhelming, and can leave the viewer wondering at the details for a long time. That's not surprising, because painter Joseph Fuchs is a true storyteller, long immersed in language. Before becoming a full-time artist, he taught English at Menlo-Atherton High School from 1968 to 2003.
"I like to tell stories. I like people. I like the human touch," Fuchs says during an interview at his home studio in Los Altos.
Fuchs paints Venetian scenes almost exclusively, with the mischievous commedia dell'arte clown character Pulcinella making regular appearances. Fittingly, his paintings will be featured at the Venetian Carnevale gala fundraiser held by Palo Alto's Pacific Art League on Feb. 6. He also has a solo exhibition at the art league's Norton Gallery through Jan. 30.
Prior to teaching, Fuchs served in the Vietnam War as a medic and then studied fine arts at San Jose State University. Born in Palo Alto in 1943, he is a seventh-generation Peninsulan.
Fuchs continued to paint throughout his years of teaching but found his true artistic voice in 1982 during a sabbatical in San Salvo, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. "It was there that I discovered the clown," he says.
The beak-nosed Pulcinella has been featured in practically all of Fuchs' paintings since then. The obsession has also taken over the artist's house. Statuettes, portraits, tiles, a mantle piece and even a garage mural all feature Pulcinella.
When asked why he's drawn to the character, Fuchs says: "The clown doesn't speak. He's modeled after a chicken; that's where the name comes from. He's a servant ... seems like a nobody, but he always has an interesting role."
Sometimes the clown appears in a painting as a tiny figure walking along an alley. Or maybe he's taking a nap in a gondola, leaning against a wall on the edge of a canal, playing the violin, serving as a waiter, or walking on stilts. Often, two or three Pulcinellas appear together. Fuchs admits that the running theme is more than slightly autobiographical. It is all part of the inner world of his paintings, the secret stories, the hidden cultural allusions.
In another way, Fuchs really is Pulcinella. To serve as a reference for his paintings, he dresses up in the clown's characteristic baggy white pant suit, the black mask and the long cylindrical cap. His wife, Jane, photographs him. Then the artist sketches from the photos and finally inserts them into his paintings.
"That's all him," Jane Fuchs says, pointing at the clown holding the long-necked guitar in "Finale."
The artist's work was also influenced by another sabbatical. In 1997, he stayed in Venice's Giardini neighborhood, a five-minute boat ride from the heart of the old city. "It was there that I discovered the light. The light is different in Venice. It has to do with the water in the air," he says.
Indeed, Fuchs' Italian-themed paintings have a kind of warm glow and smoothness not seen in his earlier works, which are darker, with starker contrasts.
Fuchs states on his website, artworkofvenice.com: "The cityscapes evolve from a montage of photographs of Venice. ... He peoples these scenes from his imagination. He manipulates a series of photographic scenes until they perfectly fit a well thought-out narrative idea."
In his studio, Fuchs talks about his personal painting process. He draws grid lines on his photos and canvases as a visual guide for accuracy, and then adds layers of paint, mixing from oils dabbed onto a glass palette.
"You have to do the sky all at once," he says of the first layer. "Otherwise you can never find the color again."
Fuchs rarely uses black and white. Upon close examination, what appears to be black is actually gentle hues of purple and blue. He keeps a regular schedule, painting for several hours each morning at home, and sketching at Le Boulanger in Los Altos in the afternoons.
"I find it stimulating to work at a cafe. I have to get out where other people are," he says.
His pencil-and-ink sketches act as an exercise to keep his technique up. He also studies other types of art: Japanese prints, nudes, landscapes, portraits.
Fuchs likes to insert little tricks into his art. He might paint a window that acts as a mirror, showing an entire scene in it. Sometimes kids, pets and clowns interact from different sides of a painting, or a running story carries over into a new painting.
"I love those mind games," Jane Fuchs says.
In addition to acting as photographer, the artist's wife also manages publicity and the business side of the art. While sales have been down in the recession, Fuchs sold many works at the Voshan gallery in downtown Palo Alto before it closed in 2007. Together the couple has sold about two-thirds of Fuchs' 400 paintings.
On Feb. 6, Fuchs' Venice paintings will keep company with Italian wine and food, live music and guests at the Pacific Art League's Venetian Carnevale, held at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto. Also featured will be artist James Caldwell's paintings of the city on the lagoon.
Info: Joseph Fuchs' paintings are being shown at the Pacific Art League at 668 Ramona St. in Palo Alto through Jan. 30. Hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 to 4. Admission is free.
The Venetian Carnevale is on Feb. 6 from 6 p.m. to midnight at the Garden Court Hotel at 520 Cowper St., Palo Alto. Tickets start at $125 per person.
For more about the art league's shows and events, go to www.pacificartleague.org or call 650-321-3617. Fuchs' art is online at www.artworkofvenice.com.