If Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Willem de Kooning and Wassily Kandinsky got together and had a love child, that child would grow up to be Toby Malek. When you initially see these watercolor portraits by Toby Malek it’s easy to classify them as Cubism However, they really don’t fit neatly in to any one category. With the flattening of the plain and near deconstruction of the shape of each face they are almost convincingly cubist in nature. The motion of the brush strokes and the dynamic nature of the paint is Abstract Expressionism at it’s purist.
Most of the paintings in this series have a brooding quality to them. In some of the portraits the watercolors are layered to the point of almost being overworked. They court the edge of too much layering but never quite slide over into muddiness. Almost without exception each face confronts the viewer eye to eye. Some of the eyes are quizzical, others blank or bored. Some have a poignant sadness to them that’s accentuated by the deepness of the painted shadows. Others are almost comical. Unlike the Mona Lisa, with her mysterious smile, these portraits are lacking in coyness. When the rare smile does emerge from the depths of the paper it’s almost hesitant. The one image that doesn’t boldly stare back at the viewer is also remarkable for it’s softness. The woman’s eyes are downcast, her expression demure. There’s nothing salacious about the image. She is nude but not naked. The painting’s colors gentle to the point of being pastel. The whiteness of the paper shines through the translucent of the watercolors and gives a luminosity to the piece that the other portraits are lacking. The most defined piece in the series looks like it could be a self-portrait of the artist. The man in the painting stares directly into the viewers eyes. His expression is suspended between curiosity, aloofness and amusement. The colors are a bit of a departure for Malek. They’re fleshy and pale. Black is used here more than in any other painting. The lines are sharp and clean. It has the only smile that shows teeth at all. It’s just the barest hint of them but they’re there.
This body of work left me feeling conflicted. There were no names to put with the faces, no titles to draw conclusions from. They were just a group of interesting strangers hanging on a wall.