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Landscape, digitalized: James Bleecker’s Hay Field and Catskills.

Peep This
By David Brickman

The Power of Place: The Berkshires

Berkshire 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 styles.

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 recording it.

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 it.


PERIPHERAL VISION

Patricia Nolan: Cinematika

Stevan Jennis: Narrative Landscapes

Richard 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.

—David Brickman


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