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Michael Barry: Art

Bicycles are not only vehicles and sports equipment, they’re sometimes viewed as pieces of art. Many frame builders make bicycles so elegant that they can be hung on dining room walls. Like a painting, poetry, or music, their bicycles tell a unique story that will only grow richer with time or with each kilometer ridden. In contrast, most artists struggle to draw or paint a bicycle on a canvas or a piece of paper. But there are a few artists who have managed to properly convey the bicycle’s beauty and appeal in their work.

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Over 40 years ago, Daniel Rebour drew bicycles and components in a style that captured qualities matched by photographs. Printed in manufacturers’ catalogues and magazines, particularly Le Cycle, his work gave the objects a unique allure. As a boy, I would pore over the Rebour drawings in my father’s collection of magazines and books, memorizing the details of Eddy Merckx’s bikes. By analyzing a drawing of a dismantled derailleur, I could figure how it went together and worked. His artwork was as detailed as a scientific drawing; threads on bolts could be seen and sprocket teeth could be counted. The bikes were well proportioned; something that eludes many accomplished artists when drawing bikes. Rebour was not only an artist, but also a keen cyclist. His passion for the sport was conveyed through his extensive portfolio of work.

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Greg Curnoe (1936-1992) a Canadian artist and musician, painted and sketched bicycles and wheels, often in bright colors and in ways that made them appear as if they were real: a scale and exact serigraph of a bicycle on plexiglass was made to stand against a wall, just as a real bike would. A wheel was printed similarly. The bright colors were what differentiated the artwork from the actual object. Some of his drawings and paintings were intentionally disproportioned, perhaps as a part of his manifesto on the art-life split, in “which he questioned the borders separating art from life.” The technical aspects of the bike were an important part of the piece (he included parts lists in several of the pieces), yet with color, they also evoked the emotional—the sense of freedom and elation that most cyclists feel.

Curnoe spent time in my father’s shop watching the frames being built, which he would later draw or paint. He had a clear understanding of the work that went into the bicycles, and the passion that the builder had for his craft. Over the drafting table, or workbench, they would often have lengthy conversations about art and bicycle design. That is also relayed through his work that often had meticulous descriptions of the provenance of the parts, the tubing, the builders, and the mechanics that had pieced them together.

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Taliah Lempert, an artist from New York City, paints and draws bicycles. Before painting a bicycle, she engages in an intensive study of the piece, which includes several sessions of blind drawings. On her website, she wrote, “Bicycles are important, beautiful, and worth a close look. Most bikes I paint are, or have been, used daily for transportation, recreation, messenger work and/or for racing. They are worn and customized uniquely, being at once a specific bike and a collective symbol of empowerment.” In her work, it seems that she tries to tell the story of the bicycle and its owner.

Like Curnoe and Rebour, Lempert is also an avid cyclist. Perhaps to paint a bike well, the artist needs to have felt the emotion of riding a bike for hours a day, one that fits its rider like a baseball mitt fits a player. Most of the best frame builders have a similar relationship with the bike, which is why they build something that’s more than just a way to get around.