Bantam >> When one first sees the art of Robert Deyber, one is struck by the precise movements of the subjects and by the surrealism. A jackrabbit sits with a lit match in its mouth while a couple of buildings burn in the background; two giant weaponized roses shoot cannonballs at each other; a donkey wearing a square academic cap stands in front of a chalkboard filled with solutions to complex math equations.
Then one learns the paintings’ respective titles: “Bad Hare Day;” “War of the Roses;” “Smart Ass.”
With the revelation of the titles’ puns, the viewer’s experience becomes complete. But even though the paintings and the titles cannot seem to exist without one another, the works’ visual freshness and wit can stand alone in their Dada-esque solemnity.
“The style of work is called so many things,” said Deyber, 61, at his art studio at the Switch Factory Building at 931 Bantam Road, his public relations director Alexandra Franjola sitting at a nearby desk. Deyber added, “It fits into the label ‘pop surrealism.’ It’s called ‘phraseology’ by some people. I visually interpret clichés.”
Deyber’s work has been noted for its rebus device qualities. A rebus uses existing symbols, such as pictograms, for their sounds regardless of their meaning, in order to represent new words. Deyber recasts familiar words, sayings, and idioms in visuals reminiscent of René Magritte, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, and Henri Rousseau.
Represented by the worldwide chain of Martin Lawrence Galleries, Deyber reportedly outsells even Picasso, and has sold to such diverse clients as Alicia Keys, Kobe Bryant, Josh Brolin, Roger Waters, Sheryl Crow, and King Abdullah II of Jordan. In 2005, he designed the album art for Tom Petty’s “Highway Companion” (Petty is also a collector of Deyber’s artwork).
A youthful and commanding figure at 6’3”, Deyber showed off his bold-colored, sprawling canvases that lined one side of his 1,500 square-foot art studio with large factory-style windows, Deyber explained why it is the ideal working area: “I get the North light in this space. I work with direct sunlight, and here it is the best quality of sunlight.”
Deyber wore a paint-splattered smock and thick glasses while touching up a newer painting “The Drug War” that was on an easel. In the work, gigantic brightly-colored drug capsules on wheels are rolling along the hills and shooting cannonballs at smaller capsules.
When asked how he gets inspiration for his creations, Deyber said, “I get my ideas from the dictionary and sometimes from other people.”
These days Deyber’s work typically sells in the five digit range. One work sold for $27,000, leaving viewers to look for them online. “Toucans” a 30 X 30 Magritte-like acrylic canvas, sold in 2009 for a reported $10,000. Depicting a visual pun, the painting shows two tropical birds perched upon Campbell’s Soup cans (containing soup flavors “Bird’s Nest” and “Egg Drop”).
As befitting all the visual mischief, Deyber’s journey to become an artist was full of twists and turns. As a teenager living in Greenwich, he said he was ready to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Janice Deyber, a renowned portrait artist in the 1970s and 1980s before she passed away when he was 18. Deyber holed up in a makeshift art studio that was actually his parents’ closet and produced many oil paintings. The fumes make him dizzy and ill and contributed to his various ailments, which plague him to his day.
Deyber said his father, Robert, Sr., put an end to his fledging art career. Deyber wanted to study art at SUNY Purchase, but his father, a real estate broker, insisted he pursue a business degree at the University of Connecticut. Deyber complied but confessed that he took art classes on the sly to stoke the fires of his imagination. His father passed away about 30 years ago but when he was alive, he was also intolerant of Deyber’s homosexuality. “It was a different period of time,” Deyber said. “I was trying to come out. He never accepted it.”
After college, Deyber worked as an executive at America West Airlines for several years, traveling the world. The pull of art still led him to museums and galleries in Perugia and Milan, where he learned about the work of Giotto di Bondone and other classic Italian painters.
After 9/11, the commercial flight industry let go of much of its middle management in 2001, including Deyber. He decided to return his art, and to follow a specific unique vision. But what was the vision? He told himself, as employees at the airline had been advised at one point, “We have to start thinking outside the box.”
So Deyber scouted about for material. “I went through Catholic angst,” Deyber confessed. “There was a lot of rage and guilt at the Catholic Church. I produced art with lots of blood and gold chalices with thorns, and crosses with screws.” He said the period was not to last, adding, “I wasn’t Madonna, so that stuff was already covered.”
Deyber said he started still-life painting with the phraseology twists. “They came to me out of the blue,” he said. He checked online to see if this type of art had been done before. It hadn’t, so Deyber started painting according to his current surrealistic, pun-laden vision.
In 2006, Deyber had been discovered by a powerful institution in the art world, Chalk & Vermilion Fine Arts, while Deyber had a booth at the New York International Art Expo in New York City. Chalk & Vermilion owned the influential Martin Lawrence Galleries.
“The galleries started fighting over me,” Deyber said. “It turned out to be a huge thing. They have Basquiat, Picasso, and others, but now I am the number-one-selling artist in their galleries.”
Deyber has collectors in more than 20 countries. Deyber’s career took off internationally but aside from one local blog post, the artist became the area’s best-kept secret as he focused on the work.
“My style evolved and got into the Hudson River School style,” he said, adding of the puns he used, “In other works, I get a bit dirty and a little blue.”
An overall theme of his art is the use of contrasts. “The dark and the light are important,” he said. “We do have muted colors but then we add, say, bright red.”
Deyber was currently working on a large canvas on a work table that depicts a crepuscular background that is highlighted with a fire-engine-red-covered building and scarlet traffic signs. It will be called “Painting the Town Red.”
From her nearby desk, Deyber’s PR Director Alexandra Franjola spoke: “I have heard some refer to the art as ‘hyperliteralism.’ The hidden meaning is in the name [of the work].”
Deyber said he overall does not think that highly of contemporary avant-garde art. “It is like the Whitney Biennial is selected by all the Yale MFA students,” he said. “I call it ‘plastic throw-up.’” He referred to an every-two-years exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Franjola added, “Some say Robert’s work falls into the ‘lowbrow’ category, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fine art. Fine art doesn’t mean that only some people get it, and others don’t.”
Everything appeared to be coming together in Deyber’s personal life as well. He met his partner, Robert Graham, on the Match.com dating site, in 2001 and they moved together to Atlanta, to be closer to Deyber’s sisters’ families. The couple returned to Litchfield County in 2008 to look after his deceased father’s second wife, an elderly woman of whom he had always been fond.
He and Graham decided to stay here for the long term because of all the artistic opportunities, antique businesses, and real estate possibilities. “This area is the Brooklyn of Litchfield County,” quipped Deyber.
Despite suffering from scoliosis in his neck and lately beset by a mysterious fatigue, Deyber produces 200 paintings per year. He works on numerous canvases at once, creating ever-present luminous clouds on some canvases, adding details on others, and putting the finishing touches on others. “It is the ADHD,” Deyber explained. “I jump around from work to work.”
“Acrylic is an unforgiving medium,” he said. “I don’t glaze it. I have to work fast. I can have a sky done in two minutes.” He added, “I typically work on 20 paintings at once. I get bored easily.”
Deyber said he is recently for the first time creating three-dimensional work as well as larger-scale non-pun works depicting thorns and metallic surfaces.
Some of Deyber’s paintings can get political. In “The Right to Arm Bears,” a polar bear poses near a cannon, grasping various battle-axes and spears, a work which perhaps pokes fun at Americans’ obsession with the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Deyber and Graham were married in 2010 at the Litchfield Town Hall. Graham had managed Deyber’s career and been his PR agent before Franjola took over. Graham, 40, is now the owner of the antique store across the street from Deyber’s art studio, the sprawling Housatonic Trading Co., at 920 Bantam Road. When Graham is not bidding for collectibles at auctions or restoring houses, he can be found managing the store and playing with his and Deyber’s Blue Nose Pit Bull puppy, Gunner.
Graham said the power of Deyber’s work is in people’s reactions.
“Anytime I hear customers getting excited and laughing, I can tell they are looking at his art books that we have in the shop,” Graham said, of Deyber’s “Figures of Speech” and “A Language All His Own” (which have “War of the Roses” and “Bad Hare Day” respectively on their covers).
“There has been a big response to his work,” Graham said. “It’s truly great to see.”