Thomas Kegler, who made his solo exhibition debut at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco this summer (June 10–July 9, 2011), approaches nature with the devotion of a Hudson River School painter. Kegler, a native of western New York State, attempts to recapture both the techniques and the sensibility of the nineteenth-century American landscapists. Like those earlier artists, who often brought the patient enthusiasm of the amateur geologist and botanist to their field studies, Kegler is a careful observer. He remarks that “understanding the intricacies of nature, how it all works” is an important part of his aesthetic. He paints still lifes, as well, but the best of them focus on natural objects. A good example is Empty Nest—Psalm 94:19 (2011), a striking composition in which the nest is still attached to the brittle tendrils of a spidery branch. The way Kegler stretches the branch across the picture, with only a few filigree shadows—and a tiny trompe l’oeil nail—to break the white wall of the backdrop, feels contemporary. Other still lifes are more conventional. The scriptural reference in the title of Empty Nest brings a literary and spiritual context to the image, although the citation is oblique: “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.”
Nineteenth-century landscapists such as Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole found in the American wilderness fresh iconography for their Christian faith and Romantic pantheism. Kegler seems more comfortable with this aspect of their work than many contemporary realists. Birch Stump, Devil’s Kitchen—Job 14:7 (2011) is very much in the style of Durand, with its fine depiction of the texture of the bark and plants on the forest floor. The citation is apt: “At least there is hope for a tree. If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.” Kegler’s biblical allusions are low-key grace notes, and his small paintings (Birch Stump is 18-by-12 inches) do not try for the kind of panoramicedens and allegorical narratives Cole favored. Ultimately, any picture’s success, whatever the level of ambition, depends on formal elements and, in the case of representational painters, mimetic skills.
Keger’s Top of the Falls—John 10:10 (2010) works as a vertical composition. The artist balances close observation of the rocky streambed—another specialty of Durand’s—in the foreground with a softer focus on the mist-shrouded drop-off point in the distance. In another vertical painting, Northpoint—Catskill Park—Romans 14:17 (2010), the moss-covered rocks show off the artist’s dexterity in capturing the way the cool, velvety vegetation clings to the hard stone. The sunbeams illuminating a trickle of a waterfall seem theatrical and yet, as anyone who has witnessed this effect can attest, are thoroughly convincing. The horizontal Afternoon Respite—Proverbs 16:21 (2011) plays striking variations on the rock-and-water theme. The shingled rock ledge occupies a narrow passage at the bottom of the frame, as we look down and across a misty green landscape. Kegler relaxes his focus for the background, a strategy different from the overall surface pressure of detail characteristic of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. A hazy distance is fairly conventional in the Claudean landscape tradition, but Afternoon Respite is daring in the way the narrow ledge of foreground rock seems to launch the viewer into an exhilaratingly unstructured space. Kegler often chooses such vantage points: looking down at a stream or out over a sudden drop, dwelling either on the specific physicality of the immediate spot or, as in the barely earthbound vista Kaaterskill Falls Dawn—Proverbs 16:21 (2011), on the vague horizon where mountains have no more visual weight than the sky.
A few of his paintings, however, offer a more picturesque arrangement of natural elements, in which various components have a deliberately artful balance. This is no surprise, given that words we commonly use to describe the natural world—picturesque and scenic, even the noun landscape itself—are taken from the vocabulary of the visual arts. In Early Spring Pool (2011), a stream meanders from foreground into the middle distance, leading the eye back to the blurred fields and trees beyond. The reflection of tree and sky on the water is nicely smudged, and the yellow-green color palette feels fresh. Top of Kaaterskill Falls (2008) takes a wide-angle view of topography familiar from many nineteenth-century paintings, and nature is framed in a compositionally coherent way. On the left side of the picture, sky, sun and water blend together in a luminous haze. The right side is more defined, with a coulisse of trees and a handsome bank of clouds that darken at the upper edge of the frame. Kegler finds areas that seem untouched by human intervention, or perhaps he edits such intrusions out of his scenes. His scriptural quotes often refer to the blessings of wisdom and a discerning heart—in the case of the artist, a discerning eye. The corners of nature he seeks out clearly offer a refuge. The nineteenth-century artists he admires are difficult to emulate—proficient in technique, prolific in output and building on a rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Kegler is, in comparison to the masters of the Sublime, a painter of modest ambition, but his intimacy with nature and genuine craftsmanship are translated into some very appealing works. John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com