The Artists: Ella Spence Story
About time to start a series on many of my favorite artists!
In about 2001, shortly after I opened my 57th street gallery, I got a call from my gallery assistant there. She told me that a young realist painter had arrived and made a presentation with the hope that Mr. Meisel would represent her work. After researching who and what I show, this artist felt that her work qualified. I asked that she be sent down to the main gallery in SoHo so that I could see the work in person and interview her about her ideas and career goals.
An hour later, the very delightful Lady Spence, all of 23-years-old appeared in SoHo. The work was a good enough for me to make my decision within minutes of seeing it, and as a person, she was all I could ask for in an artist. The maturity, discipline, skills and compositional imagination were there; these are the trademarks that I am always searching for among the hundreds of advances and presentations I receive annually. Over the years, I find five a decade, at best.
By the way… when I say Lady Spence, I mean just that. Originally from Scotland, her grandfather was Sir Basel Spence, and her father was Sir Milton John Spence; they were each Architect to the Queen of England. (Clearly, artistic ability runs in their genes.) In the 70’s, Sir Basil and his son Sir Milton opened an office in Rome to oversee the construction of the new British Embassy there. Years later, loving Italy so much, Ella’s father returned to Italy and bought an ancient mill in Todi, about an hour north of Rome, and moved the family there. When he died in 1999, Ella, her mother and brother decided to stay in Todi. A couple of years later, her visit to my New York galleries began her career.
We have now shared 17 years of success together, and her career has been significantly advanced. She has produced an impressive volume and quality of work and has continued to vehemently push the boundaries of Photorealism, more so than any other female painter I have worked with. To date, she is the ONLY true woman Photorealist.
In the early years, that title was held by Audrey Flack, but Flack’s work, while it was included in all the shows and books I did, was just outside what true Photorealism was and is all about. Three other women, Idelle Weber, Fran Bull and Joyce Meyers, produced seriously good Photorealist paintings. While Flack did so for just 10 years, the others did for just three to five.
In comparison, Spence has worked to constantly reinvent her favored subject matter—cityscapes and is experimenting with new ways to see and paint other landscapes. Her early paintings were of Venice, Lake Como and other Italian cityscapes. She has now painted cities and landscapes worldwide from vantage points that were previously unconceived.
OK, some stories:
When Spence joined the roster, I was in the very late stages of working with Gianni Mercurio, the curator of IPPEREALSTI at the Chiostro Del Bramante in Rome; we were assembling what was to be the largest and greatest Photorealist museum exhibition in Italy ever (and since). It was extremely important for me to then have Raphaella Spence included, particularly because she was the living an hour from Rome and was essentially an Italian artist. After discussing her work with Gianni, he asked for her to come to Rome to meet him and show him her work. He immediately agreed with me and included her in the show.
Shortly thereafter, Gianni contacted me to tell me that Chrysler was a major sponsor of the exhibition, and they asked if one of the Photorealists could paint a picture of their new PT Cruiser. While Blackwell, Kleemann, Goings and others had and were using automotive subject matter, it was very unlikely that any of the established painters would or even could take the time from other work to do such a painting. This gave me the great opportunity to begin my presentation and promotion of Spence in a very prominent way. I suggested to Gianni and Chrysler that she could and would be delighted to take the commission.
The deal was that they would give her the car to drive around Italy and photograph it “on location” to establish the working image. They would then place a time-lapse camera in her studio to take a frame every five minutes for the months she was working. The film with narrative would then be shown constantly during the exhibition. When asked what her FEE would be… I responded, “the car.”
The show was an incredible success, and the media coverage amounted to over 300 notices. Her painting, the film, and her being a “local” artist became a great launch of her career. Since then I have presented her in well over 20 international museum surveys and shows.
For one of these events, Raphaella’s work was chosen for the cover of the catalog. When the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida mounted a major survey of Photorealism, Raphaella’s painting of Sarasota became the headlining image for all of their marketing and promotional materials. Earlier in 2006, my brother Elliott and I had taken her in our Cessna 172 to fly over the Hamptons; she took some photos, and then did an aerial view painting of the Southampton estate section. She then, uniquely, in Photorealism, claimed the aerial view as HER territory in the genre. For the Ringling show, she hired a helicopter and made an aerial image painting of all of Sarasota from the resulting photography.
Since then she has painted NYC, Rome, Beijing, Las Vegas and other cities from this perspective. She is presently without a doubt nor argument among the leaders of Photorealism in the digital age. In my opinion, she will be just one of approximately 30 artists who I can say “make the cut” and who will stand the test of time in the genre. Though what is quite amazing, is that her husband, Roberto Bernardi, is also one of that group of 30 or so. He is the digital age still life leader of the genre, and he will be the subject of a future blog.