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Robert Gniewek gets intimate with the world's most infamous criminals 

Mean mugs

For years, Detroit native Robert Gniewek made a name for himself for his meticulously painted landscapes depicting urban landscapes — neon-lit diners, theater marquees, and other slices of Americana that drew a particular clientele. So his decision two and a half years ago to go in a completely different direction by creating a series of hyper-real mug shots of notorious criminals was a bit of a departure to say the least. His longtime representatives at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York were initially not amused.

[Photos: Robert Gniewek paints 8 of the world's most infamous criminals]

They'd "like everybody to stick with the format that they're known for," Gniewek admits over the phone. "But I had to go out and do my own thing, and they reluctantly went along with it." He explains his shift in gears as "sort of the way a film director doesn't want to keep on making the same movie over and over."

Gniewek acknowledges that his latest body of work could be a "dangerous path to be walking on, probably," realizing his work could be misconstrued as elevating the criminals to hero status. Gniewek says he was instead trying to go back to the roots of photorealism, a movement that came out of Pop Art, and notes Pop Art's propensity for the iconic as well as the contemporary as well.

The images are familiar — each is a recreation of highly publicized criminal mug shots that have all been circulated widely in the media. Gniewek says he spent between 200 and 400 hours on each painting (if that seems like a lot, he says his landscapes can take in excess of 1,000 hours each). He even meticulously rendered dust, scratches, and other imperfections from the photos.

"It's a labor-intensive process," Gniewek says. "It takes a lot of effort and a lot of skill, but to watch a painting come together over many weeks can be very gratifying."

And the paintings are large too — each measures more than 5 feet tall. "They're larger than life, and I'm making these characters into larger than life characters," he says. "These are people who are part of history, whether you like it or not."

Gniewek's paintings are on view at the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York until Jan. 31.

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October 21, 2020

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