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Investigating the Underground: The Art of Harry Sudman

I have been aware of Harry Sudman’s paintings for several years but routinely missed opportunities to view his pieces in person.  After getting in touch with Sudman, we scheduled to meet at his studio in early May to view his paintings and discuss his process.  What I had anticipated to be a brief display of paintings and a quick chat morphed into a three hour, in-depth discussion about the Chicago art market, a comparison between the differences in American and European art education, and a thorough breakdown of Sudman’s personal painting practices. Creating paintings that objectively capture figures in the underground Chicago fetish and kink scene, Harry Sudman’s paintings make a case for artists to be regarded as contemporary anthropologists.

The paintings of Chicago native Harry Sudman possess a balance between the serenely natural and the aggressively artificial. Since the early 2000’s Sudman has become known for his paintings of PVC, leather, and latex clad women, rendered in stunning photo-realistic detail.  What began as a series of close-up images of tattoos, gloved hands and boots, soon evolved into capturing the full view of  women in alternative fashions.  After speaking with Sudman it is clear that beneath the taboo of the garments’ materials and their suggestive nature, his true fascination and artistic exploration lies with testing the boundaries of his classical painting techniques and investigating his subjects – not just their kinky boots.

Photos Courtesy of Harry Sudman

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Harry Sudman occasionally took art classes in high school but did not intend for art to be his ultimate career.  After initially studying Industrial Design at Southern Illinois University, he decided to explore his artistic inclinations and changed his focus to Fine Art and opted to study abroad in France for nine months with renowned instructor Patrick Betaudier.  The duration of his time in France was consumed with art, receiving a rigorous discipline of historic painting technique.  When he was not painting, Betaudier guided Sudman and his classmates through the Louvre and the Pompidou, providing them with enviable history lessons in the evolution of art and painting.  “The greatest lesson,” Sudman says “he ever taught me was not to be afraid, to always push myself.”  During his European study, Sudman became fascinated by the various street performers he encountered and created numerous life-sized paintings of them under Betaudier’s instruction.  “These practices [Betaudier was teaching me] date back to the Renaissance and the Baroque period,” Sudman informed me while producing a large portfolio of his French paintings. The craftsmanship was remarkable.  While most art students’ undergraduate paintings tend to appear fragmentary or as preparations for larger, more careful paintings to come, Sudman’s paintings were fully realized examinations of the lively street music culture in France at the time.  When I asked how he decided to paint them, he deferred to instinct, “They just interested me.  I really was fascinated by who they were.”

Photo courtesy of Harry Sudman

After graduating, Sudman worked for a mural company, painting enormous and detailed scenes across vast walls at Wheaton University, several Hyatt locations, and the prominent Commerzbank in Germany.  While pleased to be making a living painting, Sudman reflects that the position limited and slowed the creation of his own work.  “When you work on a painting for eight hours a day, it’s difficult to go back home and give time to your own work.”  After several years and much acclaim for his mural paintings, Sudman broke his right wrist in a subway accident, prohibiting him from painting for several months.  That time away from work and painting provided Sudman with time to reflect upon his artistic path.  Once his wrist healed, he had decided to give his own artistic aspirations his full attention.


Photo courtesy of Harry Sudman

“I moved from the heart of the Loop to Uptown.  I’ve always liked music and Uptown is filled with great, new music,” Sudman explained about his decision to relocate to an area that would nourish his artistic sensibility.  His intuition was correct as simply wandering the streets of his new neighborhood led to the creation of his complex paintings of collaged posters and advertisements he saw on the walls and lampposts of Uptown.  “There were lots of posters and clippings all over the neighborhoods. They were plastered together over one another and made these natural collages. [I saw] these posters as remnants of our culture, so I would photograph them and recompose what I found to be a strong statement of pop culture beside esoteric subculture; these paintings were a combination of ideas and different things coming together.”  To illustrate his point, Sudman flipped through his portfolio to reveal a photograph of one of his paintings that focused on an advertisement for the band Jesus and the Devil beside a flier for a Dave Chappelle stand up show.  “This happened by chance.  Chappelle is known as being this amazing provocateur today…his name next to the band name was just a terrific thing to find.”

Photo Courtesy of Harry Sudman

Sudman continued to delve deep into the various subcultures of his new Chicago home.  Friends began to invite him to music venues and clubs in the punk and heavy rock circles.  Sudman says that meeting people at such venues as the Gingerman was his true introduction to the underground scene of Chicago. While attending various punk and heavy metal shows with bands such as Pig Face, Sudman became fascinated by the dress and presentation of both the bands and the average concertgoers.  “I started to take photographs of these people that my friends would introduce me to and created paintings from them…they usually had incredible tattoos that were really beautiful.”  From these paintings of tattoos and piercings came several pivotal partnerships with Chicago musicians and models. “I felt I was capturing hints of their identity through their fashion.” Sudman eventually met Chicago model, Miss Ammunition or “Ammo” and began to create paintings of her extensive tattoos.  As the two continued to work together, Sudman became curious about his model’s extensive and wild collection of clothes she wore to their photo sessions, most being fetishistic pieces made from PVC or latex.  The resulting paintings are lush juxtapositions between the naturally soft, milky skin tones of Ammo and the hard, sharp vinyl garments against her tattooed arms.  “I wanted to move out of my safety zone,” Sudman said, recalling his mentor Patrick Betaudier’s advice.  “This clothing brought in the element of erotica that was missing from my band painting observations.  The subject matter created a reaction and was loaded and captivating and something I wanted to experiment with.”

Inspection of these pieces up close is remarkable.  Not only is the technical rendering flawless, but there is also great warmth and ease to them as well; the paintings are not mere feats of technical precision.  Sudman graciously pulled numerous pieces out of storage to show me, and throughout his entire trajectory as an artist, it is clear that he is truly interested in the people he is painting and not the taboo nature of their clothes.  It would appear that the clothes are entirely incidental, as I later found out, all of the clothes worn by the models depend solely on what the models bring from their own wardrobes.  “I’m never sure what’s going to come out of a photoshoot, because I never know what they are going to bring. The shoot develops from what they’ve brought,” Sudman said.  “This is not necessarily their street wear, but they do wear these clothes when they go out,” he continued.  “[The paintings are] taking the outfits out of context and subtly presenting them to re-contextualize them.”  When I asked Sudman why he was drawn to capturing this alternative scene he explained, “I wanted to paint people who were pushing the boundaries and unlike subjects I’d ever painted.”


Harry Sudman's Studio, Photo Courtesy of Harry Sudman

Photo courtesy of Harry Sudman

From the street corners of Paris to the gritty halls at the Gingerman and the Metro, it is evident that Sudman’s true fascination is with the specific signs and symbols of people.  His first collection of paintings featuring Ammo and other alternative models (most of whom referred one another to him) was suitably titled Attitude, based on the various expressive clothing, makeup, and tattoos of his subjects.  What is refreshing about these pieces is Sudman’s treatment of women.  While the women are often wearing revealing garments or clothing that some may deem kinky (or no clothes at all), they never appear “posed” or directed for the lurid male gaze.  I commented to him that it would appear that these women may as well be wearing T-shirts and jeans for how casual and unobserved they look and he reminded me that for many of them, these clothes are their version of T-shirts and jeans.

The viewer’s attention isn’t trained on the objects but rather glide evenly over the full impression of the figures and identities of the subjects.  The fact that the women are not presented in the milieu of a dungeon or a prescribed sexual scene encourages the viewer to relinquish preconceptions about the women and the clothing represented.  Such measured observation and rendering arguably places Sudman as an underground anthropologist, studying and capturing the sartorial symbols of the Chicago fetish and kink scene.

As he walked me through a typical photo session, I noted how much of the positions and compositions came from the models, including the pieces featuring two models together.  “They’ve [told me] that they feel confident in these clothes and posing is another way of expressing themselves.  All of these women are into this [alternative] scene.  They say they feel very strong in front of the camera in these clothes.”  Well aware of his loaded and striking subject matter, Sudman has recently taken it upon himself to interview his regular models on camera to ask them about their relationship to such labels for both their own look and Sudman’s paintings.  With the tape, Sudman anticipates a multimedia show in the future, placing his subjects beside their painted selves.  “They like that viewers are drawn to this imagery of them. The women I work with don’t find this to be inappropriate, which I feel makes it okay for me to work with this subject matter…I find it interesting that I started painting old men with violins and now I’m painting people in fetish outfits.  All of them, then and now, are beautiful, provocative, interesting people and I think it’s interesting to present people who are completely different from myself,” Sudman smiled.  “You have to take some risks and try to provoke a reaction.”


Photo Courtesy of Harry Sudman

Sudman’s latest work is partially a continuation of the Attitude series, this time stripping away all color, featuring only minimalist black and white foundational gradations of his subjects.  These pieces direct all of the viewer’s attention upon the rich black clothing and let his models’ typically fair skin merge with the white backgrounds, leaving only elegant shadows or the blunt marks of their tattoos.  It is striking to consider that while the majority of these women are less clothed than those of his previous series, they are accorded more modesty as attention is taken away from the sexualized parts of their bodies and directed onto the various modifications and enhancements they adorn themselves with, like tattoos and piercings.  The resulting sum one may reach from looking at these pieces is the inevitable sensuality, but more so it is the bold, assertive quality of how these women claim their own bodies.  The more tattoos a model has, the more one is able to see of her curves and lines.

These recent pieces also draw more attention to the precision and incredible skill of Sudman.  His paintings are created entirely by hand, without the aid of airbrushing or digital transfer. “[Creating a painting by hand] is a look into an artist’s personality.  I render things according to how my brain understands something and how my hand can capture it.  I know a group of people who’ve also studied with [Betaudier] and all of us paint differently.  It opens up the door for more trial and error and you can see how a person works to create something and work things out through a painting, which is unique.”

Photograph by Brian Willard

Working from a photograph harvested from one of his many photo sessions, Sudman creates a life sized drawing in painstaking detail and then transfers it by hand to a wood panel.  From that point on, Sudman adds definition in innumerable shades of black and white, selectively choosing where to pump up the contrast and where to pull back and let the highlights blur out the detail.  Sudman’s painting area is centered around a custom easel rig that he built himself to accommodate the unusual sizes of his panels and is flanked on his left side by a large computer monitor and a long glass palette on his right side.  During my first visit I was stunned as Sudman identified the subtle differences between the many shades of black paint carefully mixed upon the palette in a row.  When asked about his attraction to representational painting, Sudman replied, “it’s the personal challenge of recreating something that people can recognize [and to still] create rhythm in space.”

The paintings of Harry Sudman merge an Old World education and aesthetic with an ever increasingly expressive contemporary youth scene.  Grounded by his classical methodology and practice, Sudman harmonizes the often marginalized sects of society with the same respect, admiration, and care as a Flemish nobleman – proof that representational painting is far from dead as critics are eager to declare. Sudman’s hyperrealistic paintings are striking for their overt sexuality and assertiveness, yet upon closer inspection the pieces have less to do with fetishism and voyeurism than with an unwavering inspection and study of individuals’ desire to set themselves apart from the uniform masses, perched atop spike heels for a better view.

Harry Sudman’s work will be featured in two exhibitions opening Friday, June 15th.  You can see several of his paintings up close at the show “KINK” at Design Cloud located at 118 N Peoria and a new painting of Sudman’s will be part of a group show of artists’ self-portraits entitled “Facemask” at the Zhou B Art Center at 1029 W. 35th St.  


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3 Responses to " Investigating the Underground: The Art of Harry Sudman "

  1. That’s a nice post.

  2. Wonderful article its about time Harry Sudman received the recognition he deserves. Lots of luck on your show Harry. Cheers Tim Hurley

  3. […] last interview with artist Harry Sudman was also very memorable, mostly because I had been trying to meet him for […]

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