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Retrospective of Paul Binai's work shows how gutsy the artist is

Saturday, October 26, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

It's one word, four letters: Guts," Paul Binai advised a student who'd once asked what it took to be an artist. "You have to have conviction," he adds, standing in the midst of "A Fifty Year Retrospective" of his work in The Art Gallery at Penn State University, New Kensington, the walls of paintings adding credibility to his remarks.

"I just wanted to paint and draw - since I was a kid," says Paul Binai, who is standing in the October sun on the roof of his Indiana studio. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Guts and conviction are evident in the bold, confident imagery Binai creates.

"Stun Gun" from 1995, for example, is spare, direct and effective. On one side of the canvas, the dark bulk of a figure sits, folded into himself except for his splayed legs. On the other side, a forearm and gun take aim across a thickly textured field of magenta that appears wet, like spilled flesh. Electric green edging around both figures charges the work and illustrates what an accomplished colorist Binai is, often dramatically flaunting primary colors and exciting them with their complements.

Or, he may be restrained, as in "Psyche Ward," completed this year, one of a number of arresting works on paper with a dark background comprising blue-black brushstrokes that suggest nightmarish turbulence. Here, a lone figure stands, back to us, his yellow straitjacket ironically the only bright spot. A solemn-faced child stares out from a photographic image as a flash of tortured memory.

Binai's use of bright, jarring color, emphatic lines and emotive interpretation of disturbing subject matter invite comparison to the German Expressionists, an influence he acknowledges, citing Ernst Kirchner and Die Brucke movement in particular. But while one may see Emil Nolde, there's also the social message of contemporary Leon Golub. And a more than passing acquaintance with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which not coincidentally share such subject matter as the prostitutes and actors of the Edo (Tokyo) underworld with that of the Expressionists' Berlin.

The sinister undertone of that Berlin lingered when Binai lived there and inspired four powerful paintings that make a commanding whole, three of them painted this year. Brim-hatted figures reduced to anonymous silhouettes (which he calls the "Shadow Theater") move against thickly textured, boldly colored buildings, their chimneys and windows askew. In one recess, a man hangs by the neck ("House of the Hanged Man"); another tumbles from an open window ("Falling Man"), an action inspired by a news account of an incident in the Middle East.

A specific event clicks with Binai and the image that he paints fixes its emotional gestalt. His accomplishment is that he communicates concern, even urgency, without resorting to self-indulgence or polemics -- the intellectual is subsumed within the visceral.

"I've never thought of myself as a social activist," he says. "This just comes out of me. I do have certain concerns. But I don't think of myself as a social or political activist."

The qualities that permeate his painting -- conviction and guts -- reveal themselves more slowly in the character of the soft-spoken Indiana-based 70-year-old, but they guide the way he conducts his daily life. Whether challenging the removal of a student's work from a group exhibition for dubious cause, organizing an annual art sale to benefit the homeless, or resigning from the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh over what he saw as insensitive treatment of members, Binai stands on principle regardless of its popularity.

Literate and opinionated, Binai winces at both the dropping of standards in American culture and increasing global physical and psychological violence.

As to the effect art may have on that, he says, "I personally believe that the populace in the main is oblivious to art" and have a "total misconception of what art is all about." While people continue to paint and to enjoy viewing subjects like "covered bridges, flowers and mothers holding babies," he feels the "number who would take art seriously on this continent is small."

He doesn't see museums, in the main, countering this trend, but rather more often "ridiculing their own resources ... bringing [art] down to the lowest level." For example, he sees as "vulgarizing" such commercialization as reproducing an artwork on a door mat -- thereby inviting people to wipe their feet on it -- or sponsoring "beer bashes" in an attempt to "bring people in and make art palatable."

“Falling Man” by Paul Binai is one of the most recently completed paintings in a 50-year retrospective of his work at The Art Gallery, Penn State University New Kensington campus.

Binai was born in Lancaster, Lancaster County, in 1932, and grew up near Philadelphia. Later the family moved to Indiana, and he received his education at Indiana University in Bloomington. He also attended Yale University (where he went to study with Josef Albers and was disappointed to find him to be "a very nasty, crotchety old man") and the School of Fine Arts at Fontainebleau, France.

His largest exhibition in Pittsburgh, "Japonism," was held in 1985 at the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Building and inspired a collaboration on an opera based on Kabuki drama with composer-choreographer Stephen Pellegrino (three works in the exhibition relate to the latter project). He's represented by Denise Bibro Fine Art, New York, and has shown internationally as well.

Binai has been an educator, including as faculty at Purdue University, and a curator, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Carnegie Museum of Art (1973-80) and Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

But in 1994 he left those occupations to do what he most wanted -- paint.

"I just wanted to paint and draw -- since I was a little kid," a vocation that met with family disapproval until he began teaching at Purdue.

His commitment to and infatuation with the lifestyle of an artist are evident in an early self-portrait done in France in 1962, jaunty and serious beneath his chic newsboy hat.

The earliest work in the exhibition, "Blue Shutters," painted in 1952 when he was 19, generated controversy in its time. Immersed in the writings of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, Binai painted the sultriness of a hot night personified by a woman -- awakened by a sound, an argument, the heat -- wearing a white bra and looking out a window framed by blue shutters. When he attempted to exhibit it in Indiana, he says, it met with disapproval and someone was sent to "measure the cleavage."

Collage, a medium he's recently returned to, offers a different vocabulary of expression and the works are more intimate than his paintings. Combining personal and mass-media materials and art historical references, he suggests narrative and structures aesthetic through such devices as juxtapositioning and the rough white space of torn edges.

Binai goes to his studio daily -- "even if I'm not feeling well, I go down" -- where he works simultaneously on canvas, on paper and in collage, basically free to pursue what he wishes.

"At this point I'm happy just to paint for myself. I don't have to build a resume."

The exhibition continues through Friday, when a closing reception will be held at 6 p.m. The gallery, in the Administration Building, is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (if locked on weekends, call Ext. 6120 from the front lobby desk for security to open). Admission is free. For information or directions, call 724-334-6000, Ext. 6057, or visit http://www.nk.psu.edu.

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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