"Modern Gladiators" opens Thursday, July 21 at Roots Up Gallery and will remain up through August 18.
IT’S SAID that twins and triplets live their lives finely in tune. They experience each other’s emotions, share each other’s pain, and generally share a strong connection that singleton siblings don’t experience.
So when Jared Seff’s triplet siblings, Samantha and Jeremy, both got into MMA fighting, Jared obviously felt a strong tie to the sport.
Jared went to Jeremy’s first fight in 2013 and brought his sketchbook to help calm his nerves. The result of that sketching is “Modern Gladiators,” a collection of paintings of MMA fighters. The main painting, “Jeremy’s First Fight,” was included in Jared’s senior exhibition at SCAD and caught the attention of Leslie Lovell at Roots Up Gallery, where the collection hangs.
“I didn’t really like the idea of watching my brother fight,” confides Seff. “Growing up, we never got into fights! We were very peaceful people. I just brought my sketchbook as a way of coping with it, and I drew the entire time he was there. It was the only time I wasn’t shaking from nerves.”
That fight inspired Seff to delve deeper into fighting, both by watching more fights and by studying artistic depictions of boxing through history.
Seff drew much of his inspiration from the Ashcan School Movement of the early twentieth century, in which artists used dark colors and broad, gestural brushwork. George Bellows, one of the school’s students, is renowned for his paintings of boxers.
“It’s pretty close to how it felt,” Seff says of “Jeremy’s First Fight.” “I was definitely referencing the Thomas Eakins paintings and the [Ashcan School Movement] painters that had these pretty darkly lit scenes, but [the lighting] lends itself to the theme really well because it becomes a stage rather than the ring. For some of these, the only light I use in the painting is on that stage, in the ring.”
Through history, fighters have often been portrayed as athletes and heroes, particularly in the Greco-Roman era. That style of art has always resonated with Seff.
“Prior to doing any of these paintings, I really gravitated towards representational art, in the post-classic era, post-Greco-Roman era, and at artists who would look back towards the classics as a way of representing the figure, especially,” Seff explains, noting that he likes the David and Goliath trope.
While Seff’s paintings hold a decidedly ancient feel, they don’t feel timeless. In the background of “Jeremy’s First Fight,” banners advertise Tapout and Budweiser, and audience members record the bouts with their cell phones. “O Sister, Where Art Thou” shows Samantha’s tattooed back as she knocks out her opponent. The retention of modern placeholders gives the paintings a very unique feeling.
“Even though you can find boxing paintings, you can’t find a lot of people doing that today, especially in traditional representational style. But additionally, you can’t find paintings like this of MMA, because it’s a new sport,” Seff notes.
“It feels simultaneously very new and fresh, but this way of being represented is very ancient. I think that’s a really interesting and unique dichotomy.”
Seff’s pieces in the show range from larger, completed paintings like “Jeremy’s First Fight” to small, unfinished compositional studies, all of which display strong movement. He includes one still life of boxing gloves hanging over a painting of the ancient sculpture “Boxer at Rest.” The inclusion of that painting brings all of Seff’s influences together in one neat package.
“There’s a direct link to the past and the fact that this theme is a really ancient one,” Seff muses.