An exhibition of recent paintings by Kevin Fitzgerald, at Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, illustrates a paradox of the landscape genre. While rooted in the specifics of some natural place beloved of the artist, the landscape often blurs the line between representation and abstraction. Fitzgerald’s corner of the natural world is Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but his interest is not in the topographical details of its fields and marshes, but in what he calls its “elemental” qualities. In Ocean Cloud ( all works 2013), the pinkish-grey foreground reads convincingly as sand and the inky stripe across the horizon as water, but these components are supporting players to the sky—a variegated expanse of cerulean with a soft, painterly cloud that seems to pick up every color in the composition. Fitzgerald could be categorized as a contemporary Tonalist, with the nineteenth-century George Inness as a strong influence, but the modernist Mark Rothko is also one of his sources.
Like Inness, Fitzgerald is something of a mystic. He studies the transformation of the landscape at different times of day during sketching expeditions, but his painting process owes a lot to what one of his favorite poets, John Keats, calls “silence and slow time.” His views lack the obviously striking features associated with the sublime and the picturesque. In Riverfield, two rounded, smudgy forms representing trees, on the right, are the only quasi-vertical elements in a layered vista from ocher field to blue river, to russet far shore; even the clouds blending into the sky are diaphanous horizontals.
Not surprisingly, dusk—a time when contours merge and forms become more indistinct—is conducive to Fitzgerald’s aesthetic. Springfield has a Whistlerian palette: the Nocturnes were more often depictions of twilight than full darkness. Springfield layers blue on blue—greyish at the bottom, inky at the horizon and a deep, jewel-like sapphire at the top. He separates the darkest blue from the sapphire empyrean with a fading swath of pale lemon. It’s the most featureless of the paintings in the exhibition, but it is not abstract. The colors do not lie flat on the picture plane; they create a feeling of spatial recession. Fitzgerald builds up textures that contribute to the sense of depth.
This technique works well in two other paintings in the show: one is more-or-less monochromatic; the other uses strongly contrasting colors. Ironshire Morning plays shades of brown against a yellow sky, but the reciprocity between light and water energizes the fairly simple composition. Along the flat horizon line, the brown-shadowed water picks up golden light from the sky. Reddish undertones soften the darker brown of the foreground and give a mahogany patina to the trees on the far shore. The artist blurs the edges of the trees, and the lemon sky has tawny patches and—where the oncoming morning seems to be pushing through—a corner of grey-blue. Oil paint as a medium—with its peculiar mix of luminosity and textured density—becomes a vehicle for investigating the transformation of darkness into light.
October Sky is a bolder study in color and perhaps an unexpected homage to another of Fitzgerald’s favorite artists, Titian. Titian, Fitzgerald says, teaches us how “color itself creates the form.” In October Sky, the foreground field is a deep garnet red; what we can assume is a dense line of trees along the horizon is almost black. Above that, a smear of pale yellow cloud/light introduces the sky, which rises into brilliant blue. The artist uses red, blue and yellow—primary colors—but avoids bright pure pigment. His red is dark and earthy, his yellow is a creamy banner of paint, and his clarion blue is veiled with brushstrokes. The subject is autumn. The Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey favored scarlet foliage and crisp sunlight. Fitzgerald’s version is more interior but rings true as an evocation of the season.
All good representational painting has abstract virtues, an understanding of how shapes, lines and color come together in harmony on the picture plane. Finding a place of equilibrium between past and present is a very individual concern. Finding the space between the natural world and the artist’s dream of nature is an equally daunting task. Fitzgerald continues to explore that space in moving and intriguing images. The exhibition was on view March 22–April 15, 2013, at Principle Gallery, 208 King Street, Alexandria, Virgina 22314. Telephone (703) 739-9326. principlegallery.com