The four industrial landscapes in John Moore’s recent show “Thirteen Miles from Paradise,” at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York City, carry a good deal of art historical resonance. Moore finds beauty in steel mills and utilitarian bridges, in the tradition of Precisionists such as Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler. Those artists of the 1920s and 1930s, however, celebrated the vigor of the nation’s romance with the machine, in elegant geometries that reconciled the imperatives of realism and abstraction. Moore’s paintings recognize the different circumstances of post-industrial America. His subject is the factory town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, now in decline, located thirteen miles east of an Amish farming community named Paradise. That geographic fact gives the artist an evocative title for the series. Moore has been visiting the site for more than twenty years, and the exhibition includes, besides the quartet of oils based on observations from 2007–08, an earlier work. Coatesville Study I (1986) depicts a lively “workscape” of chimneys and factory roofs. Nature plays a much greater role in the recent paintings, reasserting its power over the land, with sociological and ecological implications that tinge the site with melancholy.
Moore is an accomplished realist painter, with a distinguished teaching record that includes stints at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University and Boston University. From 1999 to 2008, he served as Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. But, for all their meticulous detail, the works in “Thirteen Miles from Paradise” are closer in ambition to history painting than to documentary realism. Each image is, in fact, a composite, an idealization of a specific place as transformed by change and memory. The paintings are epic in scale, measuring 90-by-75 inches, and they recapitulate one of the universal traditional tropes of art: the four seasons. Like the times of day—morning, noon, evening, night—the seasons provide a template for the cycle of life, for an individual, a community such as Coatesville or a civilization. (Thomas Cole’s nineteenth-century allegorical cycle The Course of Empire follows this pattern.)
Moore uses the four seasons inventively, as a way to explore stylistic options, while maintaining an overall sense of harmony. Winter Light (2008) is the sparest and most Precisionist of the group. A makeshift roof, supported by an elaborate web of metal struts, fills most of the composition. There are no walls, only skeletal supports creating a perspective grid. Hulking factory shapes form the backdrop. The infrastructure of abandonment is softened, however, by the violet-grey light that fills the spaces where walls should be and is reflected in puddles on the dirt floor. In Sunday Evening: Summer (2009), a ruined, rudimentary bridge is the perspective device, drawing the eye toward the factory buildings in the distance. These man-made structures are balanced against natural elements: the blue water under the bridge, a deftly observed thatch of long grass in the foreground and a dynamic skyscape of broken cloud. The sharp edges of the industrial geometries—including a weathered yellow “Danger: Keep Off” sign barring the way across the bridge—lock the composition in place.
Nature seems freer in the vernal and autumnal images. In A Fine Fall Day (2008), the factories have been moved to the far background, arrayed in a thin line at the top of the picture. The houses in the middle distance look like a toytown, sunken below the sloping field that occupies more than half the picture plane. The foreground elements, while realistically painted, have the decorative quality of a Japanese screen. Two gorgeously colored peacocks (with a third in the middle-distance field) add glamour to the elegant shapes of the leafless trees. With a different background, this could be a design for a Tiffany window. Moore adds a rusty chain, looped over a stone marker, to counter the aestheticism of the tableau.
Perhaps the most Romantic of the quartet, Stillwater: Spring (2008) not only pushes the factories up and back to the top of the picture, but frames them in the six arches of a graceful, if less-than-pristine bridge. Most of the image is taken up by a shimmering expanse of water, catching the colors of the sky and melting from peach light to violet shadows. The rippled reflections of a bridge and a few trees provide unobtrusive variations, and three rocks and a bit of driftwood (shaped like a bird in flight) add grace notes. The pile of debris in the lower right-hand corner—rocks, old wood, even a crumpled beer can—add a realist touch, while suggesting the traditional compositional device of the Claudean coulisse. Spindly vines running down the right side help shape the space. Moore combines the visual artist’s focus on formal strategies with a documentarian’s patient attention to specific experiences and local topographies. Yet these paintings also go beyond representation to meditate on the dynamics of how human history and nature interact. Hirschl & Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 535-8810. On the web at www.HirschlAndAdler.com. The four paintings are featured in “Thirteen Miles from Paradise: John Moore” (April 10–June 14, 2009), a twenty-three-year retrospective of the artist’s industrial landscapes, at the Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Telephone (215) 898-2083. On the web at www.upenn.edu/org