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Portraiture is an adventure in insight. It is far more than a rendering of the “seen.” It is a discussion of the observed, understood, felt, imagined, appreciated, judged, criticized, loathed, pitied. For a generation, Joe Ciardiello has, with the great gift of his own personal perspective, shown us how to see faces. These keys into personality come from caring about the people he draws and the alchemy that is portraiture. Finally the Society of Illustrators has given its Hamilton King Award to him. It is conferred on the best work in the annual show done by a member. For the many fans of his work it is also a celebration of this great artist’s career and his profound contribution to the graphic arts in general and illustration in particular.

Joe Ciardiello, originally from Staten Island, NY, jumped immediately into a successful freelance illustration career in 1974 after graduating from Parsons School of Design. The media world he entered was one in which line art was the common technical solution to irnage—making, as dictated by the limitation of printing, as well as a tradition of powerful editorial work stretching back from Brad Holland to the woodblock era of the 19”‘ century. From the beginning, Joe’s brief was to coax the essence of life from a fine line. Through his inked scratches on paper we see not only the wide range of human emotion, but also deep investigations into the inner lives of human beings.

The deep perception of his line is the result of Joe’s process of wanning up: he freely draws on fine paper faces, eyes, hands, ears (sometimes connected, sometimes dismembered), overlaying, all moving in kaleidoscopic flow. Once his pen is warm, there will be a direct attack on paper. No pencil prep. Just Joe, his pen and the great unknown. There is the spontaneous and the controlled in constant conversation. It is a remarkable blending of listening to what the line is telling him and his talking back to it. Always there is that repartee. It is in every piece. The loose/tight. The knowing/not knowing. The infonned unknown. He is the matador; his pen, his cape and sword. He and the truth win every time. He leaves no bull behind.

His passions are many. His love of art and music are especially keen and significantly inform his work. His portrait of Sister Rosetta Tharpe has her as a seated, guitar—playing angel. The portrait is, as always, drawn in line, with areas of color that accent against white in ways that tickle, startle and delight the eye. In some places it is expressed as fine, spare lines. In others it blossoms into color handling that deeply embraces Rosetta’s moment. It could be her finest: she is singing and lost in the ecstasy of her own experience. Purple/ gray face, bright ruddy hair, trimmed in a light blue halation, then witty chicken—scratch lines about the head to suggest radiance; her name also designed, following the shape of an imagined “halo.” The rest of the fine Rapidograph lines have details that drop away here, emerge again there. This, to me, is the dream Joe is having about her. Her magic: the angel wings, the dress, all ethereal. It is the meeting of the real and the imagined—the very definition of song. It is a Ciardiello masterpiece and one of many.

His portrait of Sammy Davis Jr., includes the Rat Pack, from the 1960s, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin seated near Davis. President John F. Kennedy is toasting them from behind. All are rendered lightly, except for Sammy, who is caught in a characteristic spasm of laughter. This rendering transcends the humor that the piece might have had, and draws our attention to the disturbing nature of Sammy’s laugh. We see in it, what? Anguish? Anger? Grief? We have seen Davis in footage and photos, but only here through Ciardiello’s insightful pen do we see the curtain of, perhaps sadness, desperation, pain that he is trying to explode out from. He is the outsider in a perpetually uncertain world. JFK’s implied connection here only adds to the unsettling effect. I cannot look at this image and I cannot look away.

I urge you to visit, Google him, know his body of work. You will seldom find a portrait that doesn’t intimately involve you with the subject. Or doesn’t get you closer to the magic that is possible with line. Or doesn’t put you closer, sometimes deliciously and uncomfortably so, with some very deep and suddenly revealed truth.

Steve Brodner
Hamilton King Award recipient

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