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Vision of winter: Litchfield’s Pupil.

Natural Wonders
By David Brickman

J.M. Henry, Sandra Litchfield and Harry Orlyk: Paintings
Gallery 100, through June 29

It has been a fact of life in the Capital Region for at least 25 years that commercial galleries come and go, but that few manage to stay. Lately we have seen the addition of several such ventures (including Martinez Gallery in Troy and Firlefanz Gallery in Albany), each of which has its own style and following. Perhaps the most promising of these efforts—at least from the marketing standpoint—is year-old Gallery 100 in Saratoga Springs.

Helmed by equal partners Jim Lowe and Deb Martin (who are also partners in private life), the gallery occupies a clean, well-lit space one flight up from Broadway, a shopper’s paradise that is busy year-round and enjoys very heavy commerce during the summer’s ballet and track seasons.

As the cliché says, location is the first three keys to retail success, but, in the gallery business, vision and salesmanship are also crucial factors, and Martin (a painter with her MFA from the University at Albany) and Lowe (the former manager of a large pharmaceutical sales force) appear to have them both covered.

In terms of artistic direction, G100 represents an eclectic mix of regional and national artists working in mostly two- and three-dimensional media (except photography for the time being), with a strong leaning toward landscape. The current showcase exhibition featuring three painters is exemplary of this stance: J.M. Henry hails from North Carolina; Sandra Litchfield is based in western Massachusetts; and Harry Orlyk, a native of Cohoes, lives in rural Washington County. All three derive inspiration from nature and the land in creating their work.

Henry presents 10 mixed-media paintings on paper, ranging from about 8 inches square to perhaps two feet across, all of which reflect an ethereal quality reminiscent of monoprints. In each case, Henry has prepared a textured ground and drawn from a small piece of nature—usually a sprig of some plant—to develop a sort of visual haiku about the shape and gesture of the subject matter.

While his motifs move toward the abstract, they remain sufficiently grounded in perceived reality that the viewer is never left unsure of what it is he or she is looking at. Whereas pure abstraction invites the viewer to freely bring his or her own interpretation to the work, Henry’s instead offers up his poetical interpretation of the subject for the viewer’s pleasure and inspection.

Among these, Locust Variation and Ornament II stand out for their simplified compositions and celebration of leaf forms, while Wreath II takes the leaf motif further into a pattern bordering on decoration. Henry’s strongest piece in this show is titled Broken Wreath. It uses subtle shifts in color and form, and a well-placed thumbprint, to evoke emotional damage from some just-passed storm.

Litchfield also mixes media—and realism with abstraction—to create small and large paintings that are mostly readable as landscapes. Unlike Henry, who uses color sparingly, Litchfield revels in it, whether as rich, translucent watercolor on white paper or in big swaths of thick oil on aluminum. She also incorporates large areas of collaged digital photography into her paintings, accomplishing this in a smoothly blended fashion that intrigues without being too distracting.

I like Litchfield’s bold attacks on composition, whether large and in-your-face or small and subtle. In the diminutive studies (there are four, all untitled), white space is given free reign, but it doesn’t dominate the intently shaped and colored areas of paint and collage. These are very appealing little games of cut-and-paste that any retired child will delight in—but the adult in each of us will also appreciate the artist’s care in the process.

In two much larger pieces, Litchfield takes big risks that pay off. Shriek rends the sky of a 4-foot-square landscape with an arcing strip of red, conjuring a feeling that Alfred Hitchcock, or Stephen King, is not far away. And in the watery-blue Pupil, a big, black ball of confusion blasts through the icy coolness of winter serenity. These pieces show that Litchfield is trying to do more than just enjoy the landscape or her comfort with paint and scissors.

Then again, maybe just enjoying the landscape is all some artists need to do. In the case of Orlyk, whose brilliant paintings first flashed on my consciousness 22 years ago, it is more than enough.

The 16 modestly scaled oils on linen that Orlyk has contributed to this show were all created in a five-week period from December 2002 to February 2003—that’s a rate of a painting about every two days—and each one is gorgeous.

While some colorists would shy away from all that snow (you remember this winter), Orlyk has made it his bitch. Oh, you think snow is white, gray, maybe brown? Try orange, purple—green. Or, as is more common in these paintings, the most delicious buttery yellow you ever saw and weren’t allowed to eat. Orlyk paints snow like a man in the midst of a Provençal summer, with the passion and intensity of his idol Vincent; and just as well as Van Gogh did France, Orlyk does Washington County.

Not that there’s nothing but the icy stuff in these paintings—they have skies and mountains, barns and houses, trucks and tractors too, and they’re all vibrantly captured—but it is the way he paints the snow that is driving me crazy.

By the way, Orlyk broke new ground for this show by making a few paintings at the Saratoga Race Course (in the snow, naturally), but one can’t help feeling that this is a bit forced. His real passion is reserved for the land he knows intimately—whether a panoramic masterpiece like Belcher Heights (about half of which is dazzling, heliotrope-shadowed snow) or the Robert Frosty Dream Catcher, in which light and shadows (on—you guessed it—snow) perform an unforgettable dance with trees, a chain-link fence and a nearby stream.

If you’ve never seen a group of unframed oils by Harry Orlyk, do yourself a favor and catch this exhibition at one of the region’s hot new galleries. That and other rewards await you there.

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