Recent visitors to the Langer Gallery at the Madison (Wis.) Art Center, to the Milwaukee Library or even to the Milwaukee airport may have felt as if they were dropped into a dream inspired by late-night channel-flipping between a religious show and an NBA game. Isn't that Jack Sikma and Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks gazing down from the walls? In paintings? And why do they look so funny, like icons—gaunt, elongated figures with unworldly grins?
Welcome to Colleagues, a collection of portraits by David Giffey, who depicted the Bucks in the Byzantine style. His show has been making the rounds in Wisconsin and, starting next week, will be in Bradley Center, home of the Bucks, where it will hang for as long as Milwaukee remains in the playoffs. It's hardly standard treatment for an NBA team accustomed to seeing players from St. John's to have its members depicted like that school's patron.
Nor is it standard fare for fans. "This is weird," said Dino, a bartender at Nick's Restaurant, across the street from the Art Center, after he saw the life-sized paintings. The 14 eight-foot-high panels portray a dozen players plus the coach, Del Harris, and team owner Herb Kohl. The seven-foot Sikma is barely contained by the frame of his portrait (his elbow pokes through its gold-leaf border), but Kohl, 5'7", appears to be levitating within his panel. Dino, a connoisseur of the Bucks, nodded approvingly and said, "So weird."
Renè Paul Barilleaux, curator of the exhibit at the Art Center, says, "When I heard the idea, I thought, that's so out there! I just wondered if there would be a fusion of subject and technique. But they're very nice paintings."
Giffey, 47, the creator of this amalgam of church and court, learned his art in Greece and now decorates the interiors of Greek Orthodox churches throughout the country. The Byzantine style he favors dates from the fourth century and is characterized by its lack of perspective, elongated figures and flat lighting. "There is no room for sentimentality in Byzantine painting," says Giffey. "To me the style has a contemporary feeling—the figures are sort of suspended in time and space. At first this art seems severe, but if you spend time looking at it, you start to see a lot more."
Before turning to art, Giffey worked as a wire-service editor, a political reporter, a GI journalist in Vietnam, a volunteer for the United Farm Workers of America, and an herb farmer. He did not begin painting for a living until he was 30, when he sold some "hippie, Grandma Moses-style paintings" for a couple of dollars each at street fairs in Austin, Texas. His interest in Eastern religions led him to join the Orthodox church and to take up Byzantine art.
One constant through Giffey's career changes has been his devotion to the Bucks. Two years ago Giffey, who lives in Arena, Wis., decided to marry his love of art to his affection for basketball, and the Bucks "iconography" was born. The first step was to photograph the players. Then, working in acrylics, Giffey spent 1,400 hours creating the portraits. Contrary to the impression one might draw from his paintings, Giffey does not idolize the players. In fact, he decided to depict them in street clothes to demonstrate that the Bucks, first and foremost, are human. "I wanted no visible connection with sports," says Giffey. "I wanted them to be looked at as just people. I looked for a certain kind of innocence, and that was easy to find in people so young."
Early on, Giffey rejected the humorous approach. "I could have easily made them satirical," he says. "I could have put a halo around Sidney Moncrief's head. But it would have been silly; it would have taken away all the investment people have in looking at the work."
Some of the Bucks have seen their portraits. "They didn't say much," Giffey says. "They were self-conscious. Sidney Moncrief said, 'Well, that's me, that's me. But it's not like me to wear a checked suit and a striped tie.' "