Robert Bingaman showing at the Nerman in June

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‘Night Pools’ at Nerman Museum leads a lively roster of summer art exhibits
May 14
BY ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star

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In mid-April, Kansas City artist Robert  Bingaman showed slides and talked about  his work as part of the Nerman Museum  of Contemporary Art’s Third Thursday  visiting artists presentations.

The next thing Bingaman knew, the  museum’s executive director, Bruce  Hartman, invited him to do a show —  right away. Hartman was captivated by Bingaman’s new swimming pool paintings — presented as luminous blue geometric shapes surrounded by inky darkness — when they flashed on the screen roughly midway through Bingaman’s artist talk.

“Bingaman’s pool paintings are provocative, simultaneously evoking an aura of sensuality and intrigue. In their spare beauty, they are at once abstract and referential,” Hartman said in a recent email.

In the same week that Hartman offered him a show, Bingaman was invited to join Haw Contemporary gallery. Earlier, Kemper curator Erin Dziedzic chose a pool painting for inclusion in her “The Center Is a Moving Target” group show, now on view at Kemper at the Crossroads.

Why the tremendous response? Maybe it’s that spark of pre-recognition that the paintings set in play. The pools in Bingaman’s paintings are not fitness center pools, with lane ropes and nearby stacks of paddleboards and racks of waterweights. Bingaman’s empty pools play to deep-seated longings to escape and relax in buoyant solitude. Like “giant night lights,” as he calls them, these glowing beacons in the darkness carry a promise of safety. For the artist, the pared-back pools also function as a symbol “of what we want in life.”

“Growing up, my parents always talked about digging a pool,” he said. “It was a status symbol to me. As I grew older it mixed in with the notion that I’m probably never going to have a pool.” When his parents did dig a pool during Bingaman’s freshman year in college, “I realized, ‘We’re getting a pool.’ Then I thought, ‘No. This is their pool.’ ”

Bingaman started painting pools when he was in grad school at Washington University in St. Louis. These early efforts were “very loose,” he said.

By contrast, the current pool paintings combine an Ellsworth Kelly crispness with the painterly atmospherics of Color Field. The conversation with modernist abstraction functions endows their quotidian subject with mythic status. Bingaman relates the paintings to “the elemental struggle of light and dark.”

Bingaman finds his pool images online and then pares them down “so they become something else,” a symbol rather than a description of a pool that exists.

The addition of details — a black handrail leading down into the water in one image, the rectangular skimmer near the water’s surface in another — is carefully considered. The skimmer opening “was a nice little spot of abstraction,” Bingaman said, and “I made it light.”

To begin, he traces the pool shape with masking tape and applies a layer of vibrant color to the background. “It’s important where they are in space,” Bingaman said. “I’m seeking a specific perspective. It needs to be close, but not in your possession.” After sanding down the colored underlayer, he uses black acrylic to get the dark background and oil to achieve that luminous blue water. Finally, he adds a layer of oil glaze over the whole. “I love painting subject matter that’s still,” he said. “I like the vibration between the movement of (making the) depiction, and the stillness of what is depicted.” Bingaman is well aware that he has a formidable predecessor because pools have long been a signature subject of British artist David Hockney. “Hockney’s pools are about swimming,” he said. “Mine are about standing by the pool.”

He opened his talk at the Nerman by explaining, “I make paintings of things I care about.” Pools are one of them, rooted in childhood memories, but overlaid with an adult appreciation of their emotional and symbolic power and an artist’s eye for their formal possibilities. Bingaman is unapologetic about the romanticism of his pools. “They’re atmospheric landscape paintings, attached to a sense of space and place,” he said. Although their inspiration is personal, Bingaman’s pool paintings appeal to one and all. They invite us to summon our memories, project our longings and lose ourselves in their alluring polygons of blue.

“Night Pools — Robert Bingaman” opens June 27 and continues through Aug. 31 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Free. For more information, call 913-469-3000 or NermanMuseum.org.

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