CHADDS FORD, Pa. (AP) – If you're an admirer of seagulls, a new exhibition of paintings by Jamie Wyeth is here to set you straight.
Gulls personify the worst failings of mankind in Wyeth's "Seven Deadly Sins" exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford. That doesn't mean he dislikes seagulls; he finds them fascinating but says they're grossly misrepresented – and underestimated – in art.
"They're always depicted as white doves, when, in fact, they're evil scavengers," Wyeth said with a laugh. Living on an island in Maine gives him plenty of opportunity to observe the birds act out their own versions of the sins defined by early Christians as anger, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth, greed and pride.
In Wyeth's "Pride," one gull holds a prized lobster in his beak while standing atop his vanquished rival. The bird representing "Gluttony" tries to swallow a whole fish and catch more at the same time. A sleeping seagull in the foreground of "Sloth" pays no attention to the raucous feeding frenzy nearby.
Accompanying the "Sins" series is "Inferno, Monhegan," a 2006 painting of an island boy using an oar to shovel debris into a burning tank that was long used to dispose of trash. The hellish scene is a subject Wyeth, 63, has revisited in his art for two decades.
"It was something out of Wagner – this angelic little kid would shove the garbage in and the gulls would try to feed on the garbage but the flames would belch out," he said. "It was something you couldn't make up. It was just unbelievable."
Not your typical portrayal of serene New England island life, acknowledges Wyeth, who divides his time between his homes in Maine and Chadds Ford.
The argument could be made that like his seagulls, Jamie Wyeth's art – along with his father Andrew Wyeth's and grandfather N.C. Wyeth's – has also been underestimated by some.
In an interview at the Brandywine River Museum, Wyeth discussed his famous family and what he called the "terrible void" left by the death of his father in January at age 91.
"It's a huge hole, an enormous gap," he said. "But the one good thing about a painter is when they leave this earth they leave such a body of work – and in his case, a huge body of work – that it is really as if he still is alive and here with us."
Wyeth found the nationwide outpouring of grief after his father's death "staggering."
"That he touched so many people I think would have astounded him," he said. "There was such a resonance ... it was amazing to all of us."
Not as surprising, however, was the re-emerging debate that followed Andrew Wyeth's death about his role in the artistic canon. A representational painter during the apex of abstract expressionism, his work was beloved by the public but dismissed as pedestrian by some art critics. It's a debate Jamie Wyeth – who himself has faced similar criticism – doubts will ever be settled.
"The charge is that anything that has that much popularity must not be good," he said. "If it's liked by the general public, it's suspect."
Rejection from the avant-garde only served to motivate his father, as it does him.
"I mean, why not? Get them furious!" Wyeth said with a laugh. "Some of the last words my father said to me were, 'Give 'em hell.' That was one of the last things he said."
He wastes no time considering the fact that he is the last in the Wyeth artistic lineage.
"Obviously, I'm very proud, I love their work, and the fact that there were three of us pounding away at the same thing is (the source of) a terrific sense of strength ... but I don't dwell on the fact that I'm the last one," he said. "I would be frozen."
He sees little in common stylistically with his predecessors but many similarities with how they all approached their work.
"The thread that runs through the three of us is that painting is a complete and total obsession," he said. "We're not very interesting people, we don't have hobbies. All we do, all we want to do, is paint."