The exhibition opening at Roots Up Gallery this Friday will be the first solo show by local artist Jared Seff. The body of work in “Modern Gladiators” presents a contemporary take on representations of combat sport, an artistic continuum that stretches from the wrestlers of ancient Greece to early 20th century pugilists.
As Seff explains in his artist statement for the show, “I have been drawn to the heroic nature of the form of the athlete while also being captivated by the narrative nature of the ring.”
Seff’s gladiators ply their abilities not in the boxing ring, but in the octagon of mixed martial arts. The forms depicted in his paintings are thoroughly modern, but they also harken back to many classical traditions. What’s even more interesting is that the images in his paintings are based on his two siblings, a brother and sister who are both mixed martial arts fighters. The three of them are also triplets, an element that adds an additional layer of nuance to the subject matter.
“I always go and watch them,” explains Seff. “It’s really cool, but I was also really conflicted about it at first because it’s the type of sport that you cringe a little at. It gets really brutal.”
While acknowledging that mixed martial arts is both “a blood sport and a highly technical art form,” Seff says that sketching his siblings allows him to distance himself from the brutality. He says that the very first time he went to see his brother fight, the challenger in the match before him got knocked out so hard they had to bring in a medical technician revive him resulting in an hour delay of his brother’s match.
“My heart was pounding out of my chest,” says Seff. “I didn’t know how to handle it, and I didn’t know if I supported the fact that my siblings were doing this, so I just pulled out my sketch book and that was the best way for me to cope with it. And that’s how it all started.”
His brother went on to win that fight and many subsequent matches, and now, some six years later, Seff has decided to mount his first public solo show of the work. As a SCAD alumnus, Seff exhibited a version of this show as his master’s thesis, but this will be the first time it’s been exhibited in a public space. Seff has known Roots Up Gallery owners Francis Allen and Leslie Lovell for a number of years, and they were more than happy to give him the opportunity to exhibit at their downtown location.
“Over the years we have had the pleasure of working with many SCAD alumni,” explains Allen. “We are now trying to establish a platform for some of the younger SCAD alumni whose work we feel is consistent with the goals of Roots Up Gallery. Jared’s presentation of the content of ‘Modern Gladiators,’ through his use of classic form and chiaroscuro, breathes new life into the fight scenes of the early 20th century.”
“Over the years, we have followed Jared’s art and watched him develop as an artist. We believe a gallery plays an important role in helping an artist exhibit a large body of thematically connected work, thus ‘Modern Gladiators.’ His work also ties into the into the energy and raw power of Roots Up Gallery.”
Seff admits that he’s come to embrace the gritty nature of the MMA spectacle through what he calls “the poetry of the brush and paint.” Seff is an exceptionally talented painter and his classical training is on fine display in “Modern Gladiators.” He says that it’s the dual nature of the brutality and romanticism of the sport that he thinks is most appealing to viewers, much as it has been throughout the history of the art form.
“I think we really like to find heroes,” says Seff. “Their bodies are heroic. They’re courageous for even going in there and pushing themselves in the way they do. There’s a heroic nature to the spectacle of being on a stage and having everyone watch you while anything can go wrong.”
What’s most striking about the paintings in “Modern Gladiators” is the subtlety and refinement he infuses into the impressionistic scenes, however merciless the content. He’s also purposely framed each painting in ornate, classical frames in order to lend a more timeless quality to the work. The juxtaposition makes for an entirely pleasant viewing experience despite the ruthlessness on display.
Seff teaches art at the Habersham School, a private school that focuses on a classical, liberal arts education. He’s also been involved with the wider arts community in a variety of capacities over the years and hopes that his exhibition at Roots Up, 6 E. Liberty St., will help expose his art to a larger audience.
“I fell in love with Savannah,” says Seff. “I think there’s a lot of community here. We build each other up. I’ve got a lot of different communities that I feel supported by in Savannah.”
He’s also hoping that community will come out and support his art by purchasing some of it.
“I’m really hoping to get some large pieces out there. That would be awesome.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.