Catherine Prescott

Catherine Prescott, The Spanish Profile: Portrait of Caterina, 2006, Courtesy Hersh Fine Art, Glen Cove, New YorkCatherine Prescott’s exhibition at Hersh Fine Art in Glen Cove, New York (June 8–July 29, 2012), was titled “Interior, Exterior.” At first glance, that description seems to indicate little more than her range of subject matter— portraits, still lifes and landscapes. But the phrase also encapsulates the way she fuses realistic observation with emotional insight. On her website, Prescott quotes a line from the nineteenth-century novelist Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native: “Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmospheres with them in their orbits.” She takes the individuals she depicts too seriously to flatter or idealize them. In Self-Portrait with Memorials (2011), she deglamorizes herself. Photographs show an attractive mature woman with a ready smile, but this recent painting emphasizes the lines in her long neck, a shapeless grey shirt covers her slim frame, and her expression is melancholy. If the lack of vanity suggests the realism of Thomas Eakins, the attributes she selects to complement the figure are quietly intriguing. An artist traditionally incorporates tools of the trade, an easel, paintbrushes and a palette. But Prescott presents—on a two-tiered shelf behind her head—a collection of small rocks, some rough and others worn smooth by time. Symbols of endurance, stones exist in geologic time, in poignant contrast to an individual’s lifespan. At the same time, there is something reassuring about them, a hint that art and memory are lasting. 

If there is a touch of allegory in Prescott’s self-portrait, she often lets her characters speak for themselves, as in The Spanish Profile: Portrait of Caterina (2006). There are no editorializing details in this close-up of a three-quarter figure. Caterina dominates the space, emerging from deep shadows with impressive force. Her tight, rumpled white shirt emphasizes her body, while her strong features create a sense of drama. She looks to the side, and her eyes are in the shadow of her hair, yet her gaze is powerful. Prescott often primes the canvas with black, and she exploits the contrasts between dark and light like a Baroque painter. She gets to know the people she paints and may take fifty to a hundred photographs of them in different light, poses and types of space. In the studio, she distills that data into the truthful but imaginative finished work. 

Prescott’s still lifes have an austere, contemplative aura, as in a group of small images of dead birds from 2006, ranging in size from 5-by-6 inches (Goldfinch) to 6-by-7 inches (Tufted Titmouse and Bluebird) to 7-by-9 inches (Starling). The colorful plumage of these tiny creatures is tenderly painted. The larger, 36-by-30-inch Death Is Not a Domesticated Pet (2009) is more ambitious, both a homage to the Spanish Baroque painters she admires and a visual critique of the game-trophy subgenre of the still life. A taxidermy stag’s head rests upside-down atop a narrow table, seemingly too small to support it comfortably. The antlers fan out in an extravagant claw-like pattern. A lower shelf holds a blue-and-white china cup and saucer. The ensemble jarringly juxtaposes different kinds of beauty, emblems of wild nature and genteel civility. Prescott acknowledges she possesses “the naturalist’s impulse,” with its contradictory desires to honor the animal world and to possess it. But the painting is also deeply empathetic. Death Is Not a Domestic Pet was also shown in “Women Painting Women: The Expedition and Beyond” at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia (April 13–May 15, 2012). In that show’s catalogue (Matter Deep Publishing, 2012), she offers a philosophical gloss on this mysterious picture: “The experience of beauty is fleeting, it cannot be preserved, and it must be apprehended moment by moment.”

“Women Painting Women” grew out of a painting retreat on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, shared by thirteen contemporary realists. Prescott’s striking Northern Interior (2011) is a portrait of the Canadian artist Kate Stone, the youngest of the participants in the retreat. With her introspective grace and self-contained body language, Stone seems to generate the warm light that surrounds her figure. Prescott acknowledges that, when she moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1980, she was almost exclusively a portrait painter, but she became enamored of the local countryside. Her landscapes are as particular and intimate as her portraits, and there is a vibrant sense of place in Pennsylvania Field and Susquehanna River (both 2010), as well as in the oil sketches she made at Sullivan’s Island. Cloud Study, Sullivan’s Island (2010) catches the scudding movement of clouds over water through loose paint-handling. Prescott works slowly on her finished paintings, but her touch remains painterly: the brushstrokes never completely dissolve into smooth illusion. 

Prescott’s landscapes meld various art historical influences while holding on to a very personal point of view. In a trio of paintings made during a vacation in the French countryside, she shows masses of clouds over low fields. Three-quarters of each image is devoted to the sky, and the loose brushwork immediately calls to mind John Constable’s fluid studies of English weather. Cows at Home, Bonning, France I, II and III (2011) are studies of pastureland, and the agreeable bovines that dot the fields at the lower edge of the frame also suggest seventeenth-century Dutch realists such as Van Ruysdael. The cows shift their positions, clouds form and dissipate, the artist alters her vantage point from picture to picture—the suite has a temporal dimension. It also has personal resonance: Prescott grew up in Wisconsin, where she spent time with dairy farmers. Prescott’s paintings are pared down, without explicit narrative details, but they always feel lived-in. They are chapters in a continuing spiritual autobiography. “Interior, Exterior: Paintings by Catherine Prescott” was on view June 8–July 29, 2012, at Hersh Fine Art, 14A Glen Street, Glen Cove, New York 11542. Telephone  (646) 508-7645.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4