This winter the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery in New York City presented “Three Visions: Landscapes in 2005,” showcasing a trio of mature painters adept at combining realistic depictions of the natural world with the abstract demands of pictorial space. Harold Gregor (b. 1929), founder of the Heartland School, established his reputation with aerial views and “flatscapes” but also paints more close-up views. His Hot Summer Night with Fireflies (1996) raises a screen of bright, prickly foliage right up against the picture plane. In the background lie the smudged forms of an islanded lake, the distant shore and a multicolored sky, recalling the rapturous pantheism of Charles Burchfield. Gregor’s Illinois Landscape # 186 (2004) suggests a stained-glass window by John La Farge or one of Maurice Prendergast’s cheerful exercises in horror vacuii. The canvas is filled with almost flat, jewel-toned plant life. Gregor has also executed a number of public commission murals.
Steve Bigler (b. 1942) is a midwesterner who has fallen under the spell of Italy. His favorite subject is the rolling green terrain of the region southeast of Florence and northeast of Rome, the birthplace of Raphael and Bramante and the area where Piero della Francesca had his studio. Bigler’s Montefeltro series reinterprets the classical landscape tradition in contemporary terms. Panoramic scenes such as Montefeltro Landscape # 1 (2002) and Montefeltro Landscape # 5 are based on the Golden Section, a proportion favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans and their Renaissance admirers. The rounded terraces slipping in and out of shadow, in Montefeltro Landscape #14, have the manicured grace of a humanistic paradise. Bigler achieves a nice balance between observation and metaphysical clarity, demonstrating how seductive an idealized nature can seem.
Ken Rush, Jr. (b. 1948) takes a much scruffier part of world as his subject, but he, too, considers his landscapes purely conceptual. These thoroughly American-looking scenes of fields and barns are unpeopled, yet there is a haunting sense of memory and experience lingering around the domesticated rural world of clapboard houses and dusty roads. Rush considers himself an abstractionist, using remembered landscapes as templates for formal experiment, more in the manner of Wolf Kahn than of the more narrative-driven Andrew Wyeth. Crest (2004) takes its title from the slant of the ocher field that provides a disorienting, pitched horizon, juxtaposed against the neat triangle of a roof. In Daybreak II (2004) we see a similar house, at much closer range and bathed in eerie blue light, a distillation of melancholy expectation. The simplicity of Rush’s geometric compositions is complicated, however, by painterly facture. His roughly textured surfaces are enlivened by bold use of the palette knife.
All three artists give us recognizable glimpses of the natural world while celebrating the autonomy of individual painters. They construct two-dimensional compositions that reflect not only the phenomena we see but also how we perceive, in color and shape, rhythm and harmony. This was an intellectually rewarding as well as a visually exciting exhibition. Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 644-7171. On the web at www.artnet.com/katharinarichperlow.html