James Lancel McElhinney and Douglas Wirls

James McElhinney, La Vienne, 2004 Courtesy of the artistThe Painting Center in New York City featured two landscape retrospectives in March 2005, juxtaposing artists with very different styles and aims. James Lancel McElhinney paints historical American battlefield sites as they exist today. Since 1991 he has drawn most of his subject matter from American Civil War sites. He travels to well-known and unfamiliar battlefields to gather information to create a visual dialogue on “competing systems of values.” The moral and historical context of these images includes the ongoing debate between those who support preservation and those who permit destruction of sacred land. Often the sites he researches are now occupied by modern commercial structures, which obscure the nature and meaning of the struggle that once took place there. These images raise issues of how we cherish or neglect both the land and our history, the interplay between landscape and memory. His painting style and palette are traditional, much in the style of Winslow Homer’s reportage of the Civil War. His brushwork is phlegmatic, his colors are chromatic, and he sometimes uses a palette knife to rough in larger patches of earth and woods. Included in the exhibition are Fort Wool, Hampton Roads, Virginia (1993) and Battlefield of Kinston Bridge (2005). Formally, one of his most outstanding paintings is La Vienne (2004), a handsome, non-historical riverscape with bridge from a sketch made in France near Chinon, hometown of Rabelais and the Plantagenets. After more than forty solo exhibitions nationally and abroad, this was McElhinney’s New York debut. 

Douglas Wirls has worked for many years in the environs of woods and fields, but he avoids the grandeur of broad panoramas. Instead, he brings to bear an almost telescopic sensibility upon small details of vegetation, blades of grass and weeds. The reverent intensity and intimacy of these works closely suggest Albrecht Dürer’s wonderful drawing of a tuft of grass. Wirls uses polyester drafting film as his canvas, which gives the pastel medium a painterly fluidity. These large, sensuous pastels have a universality, enhanced by the subtle, poetic force of his exquisite line and form. Because of the subject matter, his palette, of necessity, is confined to a narrow range in chroma and tone. Field II (2004) is a carefully composed horizontal arrangement of swirling blades of green grass, driven by the wind and burnished white and gold by the sun, and flecked with dark bluish-green shadows between the thick shafts. Bad Botany (2004) is a somber, six-foot-high vertical depiction of dark, almost sinister bluish vegetative growth with occasional sprouts of whitish-grey bulbous flowers, creating a striking contrast to the almost cheerful landscapes of McElhinney. Wirls lives in upstate New York and teaches drawing and painting at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. He received the Laufman Award for Painting from the National Academy of Design in 2000.  The Painting Center, a non-profit, tax-exempt artist-run organization, is located at 52 Greene Street, New York, New York. Telephone (212) 343-1060. On the web at www.thepaintingcenter.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2