digitalized: James Bleecker’s Hay Field and Catskills.
Power of Place: The Berkshires
Museum, through Oct. 30
There are many delights and surprises in the exhibition The
Power of Place: The Berkshires at the Berkshire Museum
in Pittsfield, not the least of which is that it has a great
number of photographs—despite the implications of its subtitle,
The Tradition of Landscape Painting in the Berkshires.
It is also the perfect destination to bracket a foliage drive
around, as it will only augment your awareness of that lovely
region’s vistas, just as the fall colors do.
The exhibition is a large and ambitious one—it includes 80
works by 70 artists made from 1849 to 2005 in just about all
media, and it is organized across four ample galleries in
four loosely defined themes: waterways; a sense of place;
the pastoral; and preservation.
There are old artists, young artists, famous artists, anonymous
artists. There are Berkshires artists, New York artists, successful
artists, struggling artists. There are a number of pieces
from the museum’s permanent collection (one I feel compelled
to point out is among the region’s best and most undervalued)
and there are pieces created specifically for the exhibition
(many of them photographs that were printed quite large with
a grant from Hewlett-Packard Designjet Division). Most of
the works are clearly identifiable as landscapes, but more
than a few are abstract or conceptual; additionally, each
piece is labeled with descriptive information, usually written
by the artist (if alive) and almost always truly worth reading.
All in all, it will be hell to sum up in a short review.
But I’ll try.
First, the concept: For those of us who may not have known
that there is a tradition of landscape painting in
the Berkshires, suffice it to say that fine examples in the
show by such greats as George Inness (1884) and John Marin
(1912) make it clear there is indeed, and that it is a long
one. As the exhibition wends its way non-chronologically among
the centuries, this history is revealed to include certain
families from the region who spawned multiple artists—then
and now—as well as generations of artists who came to visit
but then stayed to nurture their love of the land.
In effect, it is arguably a parallel to the better-known Hudson
River school and its descendants, literally and figuratively.
Following its course as presented in this exhibition is particularly
rewarding from the art-historical perspective, because one
sees more or less the same subject treated differently through
the ages in an almost decade-by-decade survey of changing
In the biggest gallery, the pairings and juxtapositions, whether
intentional or not, become almost raucously fun. For example,
a large 1996 oil painting by Doug Maguire, titled River
Valley, is all contemporary realism with bright, sunlit
colors and a nearly garish accuracy, framed minimally in metal;
nearby, Henry Antonio Wentzler’s 1849 View of Great Barrington
is rife with 19th-century symbolism, washed in the then-popular
Godlike light of early evening, and framed in a wide, heavy,
compo-and-gold-leaf frame. What’s delightful is to see how
much the 150 years between the two both make a lot of difference
and don’t matter much at all.
Similarly, a pair of small paintings hang together on the
next wall. They are a classic Hudson River-style view of Canaan,
Conn., by William Trost Richards, painted in the early 1890s,
and an almost simplistic, graphically reduced piece from 1967
titled Sheffield Plain by Francis Cunningham. In each,
the style of the times outstrips the subject while still accurately
And another comparison at the far end of the big room is provided
by looking toward two large, vertical paintings that occupy
opposite corners, separated by a wide doorway and two other
works. They are Arthur Parton’s 1880s Scene on the Housatonic
River, a somewhat cloying but skillful piece that tries
to expand upon Albert Bierstadt’s style, and Halfmoon over
Stockbridge, a dark but vibrantly colored night view of
a quiet cabin in the woods painted in a neo-primitive style
in 1984 by Jim Schantz. Again, the century between them is
huge, yet there’s a clear relationship.
Among the many photographs, the range is also great—from tiny,
subtle platinum prints to the sometimes overlarge HP digital
prints on canvas. I hate to be a pain, but I must criticize
the quality of most of these HP prints. Those that are made
from black-and-white originals lack all the clarity and tonal
range of traditional silver prints (there are excellent examples
of the older technology in this exhibition to show what I
mean, particularly those by Gregory Crewdson and Tom Zetterstrom);
of the color ones, a few work very well (most exceptionally
Kevin Sprague’s and Keith Emerling’s)—but the rest are pretty
awful, distorting and flattening the colors to poster-like
values and in some cases amping them up to almost neon brightness.
On the other hand, a couple of digital prints in the show
that were made by the artists themselves (notably James Bleecker
and Jeremy Hobbs) demonstrate handily that the 21st-century
medium can be made to work just fine—but, like any other means
of printing a photograph, it requires high levels of craft
and judgment to succeed.
Sculpture is a minor presence in the show in terms of numbers,
but two pieces add nicely to the mix by offering different
perspectives on the idea of landscape than the two-dimensional
works do. They are Gary Orlinsky’s 1995 Cart, constructed
of rusted junk metal and birch branches; and Robin Tost’s
2005 Making Hay, a witty, colorful transformation of
two farming implements into a graceful, romantic couple.
Berkshire museum director Stuart Chase calls the show “a collision
between art and the natural world.” I wouldn’t put it that
dramatically, but there is so much in it worth mentioning
that, like a collision, once you begin to look it will be
hard to tear yourself away. I strongly recommend you go see
Stevan Jennis: Narrative Landscapes
Sena Gallery, through Oct. 6
This pairing of Patricia Nolan and Stevan Jennis
is the first show I’ve seen at Hudson’s Richard
Sena Gallery, a lovely, clean space on a lower
block of Warren Street. The exhibition takes natural
advantage of the gallery’s twin storefront layout,
being in effect tandem solo shows.
Nolan presents 15 photographic triptychs; elaborately
framed, they physically evoke the traditional
altarpiece, but their content is far more personal
and whimsical. All but five of them consist of
richly hand-colored silver prints, the others
being unadorned silver prints with one trio combining
the two media.
Nolan’s subject matter creates bridges among portraiture,
fashion, and industrial and historical architecture.
Most of the images seem to create random or mystical
connections—more like poetry than storytelling—and
several are clearly intended as straightforward
portraits of certain people, while others treat
the sitter more as a model or creative collaborator
than as a subject.
Aside from the distinctive presentation, what
makes Nolan’s work stand out is the color—she
is really as much a painter as a photographer,
and she revels in very strong, almost psychedelic
shades. I found the gold-toned framing out of
place on all but the most chromatically compatible
pieces and especially distracting on the black-and-white
pictures. Overall, this is a challenging, interesting
body of work.
Jennis is one of those artists with his own visual
vocabulary, and he uses it exuberantly in these
12 acrylic drawings on paper and paintings on
canvas. His cartoony style and self-referential
tendencies make for very approachable work—but
it also has a dark side, as though Saul Steinberg
came back, altered, from the dead.
There is appeal in both the rawness of the sketchier
pieces and the resolution of the more polished
ones—sometimes, Jennis makes the same image in
both forms—but I liked best a piece that falls
between the two. Titled Artist’s Landscape
II, it is a witty flashback to the days of
color wheels, cubes and cones, paint tubes and
sketchpads. The bespectacled, paint-splotched,
skivvies-wearing artist in the midst of it all
seems truly bewildered, perhaps by a postmodernist
world he can no longer recognize.
It’s truly fun stuff.