Sylvia Shap works show artist’s curiosity

For many artists, making art is about more than just creating visually appealing pieces.

Currently on display at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art is the work of contemporary realist Sylvia Shap, who works through oil painting and mixed media to colorfully capture her subjects.

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Shap

Her intriguing spirit of inquiry allows her work to revitalize the long-standing technique of portraiture in the art world.

Shap’s work is largely concerned with the psychological state of her subjects and aims to explore different ways of living.

Shap attempts to capture both the realistic personalities of the subjects in their physical look as well as  what makes them tick.

“When I’m working with my subjects I get to have a very intimate relationship with them and I get to learn what their concerns are in life, or things that don’t concern them, and all different kinds of things about them that help me learn different ways to be,” Shap said.

Looking at her exhibit, the viewer encounters a wide variety of characters: a nun, Shap’s mother, artist Ed Ruscha and a woman from India donning a flowing Sari.

As diverse as her subjects seem at first glance, they all share space in Shap’s curious mind.

“My parents both survived the Holocaust from Nazi Germany and were highly protective of their little girl in particular … and really limited my contact with people outside of our family,” Shap said. “It was just a very tight family unit. I really had the need to know more about life and other people and that’s really the seed behind my direction as a painter.”

Not only does Shap’s work show diversity in the characters she chooses to paint, she explores a variety of media to achieve her goal.

When oil paint alone doesn’t suit her needs, Shap will fuse photography with oil painting.

“The media that I use have to do with portraying the textures that are present with the subject,” Shap said. “Sometimes the mixed media may have to do with wanting to show the individual textures … Maybe the person has dry skin, so maybe I’ll use a pencil on a board and some pastels because it might show that kind of skin a bit better. Someone with richer skin … I might use oil.”

Shap’s affinity for portraits began decades ago; her love for art began at age six with painting and drawing.

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Shap

“My older brother, Ron, who was an extremely gifted painter and taught me how to paint and draw when I was very young,” Shap said. “He took time to teach me how to paint and draw, otherwise I don’t believe I ever would have.”

In addition to the training she received from her brother, Shap drew from major artistic forces that were gaining attention as she matured as an artist.

“As I was growing up, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, their work came along. I started to have a different point of view, in terms of how I saw things and composed my subjects,” she said. “The colors that I would begin to use were all influenced by their very contemporary viewpoint where all along my training was more classical.”

Shap’s work embodies the curious mind.

Perspective, color, emotion and detail are just the most basic aspects of her stunning work.

By learning about others and painting them, Shap learns about herself.

“It’s very important to me to try to extract as much as possible from other people’s experience so that I might not have to go through some of them or I might be able to go through some of them in a better way than I would otherwise,” she said.

Shap’s works have appeared in LACMA and her portrait of Los Angeles Master Chorale founder Roger Wagner is currently on display at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The exhibition will be on display at the Fisher Museum on campus until April 9.