Rackstraw Downes, Lois Dodd, Charles Jarboe

Charles Jarboe, Maples Along the Monarchy, 2002 Courtesy Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, New York City“Real Time—Focus: Redefining the Painted Landscape,” a summer group exhibition at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York City, acknowledged the contemporary influence of urban space. While we often associate the landscape genre with the rural and sublime scenery popularized by Constable, Turner and the Hudson River School in the nineteenth century, most people today perceive nature primarily as shaped by the built environment. Curated by artists Paul Caranicas and Emma Tapley, the show juxtaposed recent works with paintings by established artists of the last few decades. Rackstraw Downes was a practicing realist when the style was unfashionable. His 80th Street and Broadway (1976–77) takes an unsentimental look at a relatively open intersection on a rainy day. Overall grey light gives everything a tonalist sheen, brightened by the occasional red accent of a brick tenement or a neon sign. The high-angle vantage point reveals the geometry of Manhattan’s gridded streets, here seen in the compositionally strong diagonal of the cross street. The neat shorthand figures—legs, the oval of an umbrella, a shadow on a rain-slicked pavement—are effective in a near-Photorealist riff on a fin-de-siècle Parisian street scene. Carancias’s New York City, Harbor I (2007) is a study in empty space. The vast center of the composition is a clear sky, gradually fading from blue at the top to almost white at the horizon. The Statue of Liberty is a tiny shape in the distance, and a few boxy skyscrapers rise on the right. The most dramatic element, however, is a dark frame, on the left and across the top, of scaffolding. 

The curators emphasize that “no matter what source an artist draws on, whether plein air, from a photograph or from memory, successful paintings are really about time. The slowness of a successful painting, whether in its execution or in the gradual way it reveals itself to the viewer, has always been a constant.” Memory plays an obvious role in several images that stretch the boundaries of the landscape genre. Wynne Evans’s Alice in Highgate (2006) is a blatantly artificial construct. A little girl dressed as Lewis Carroll’s heroine is depicted standing on a stage in front of a monochromatic photomural of Highgate cemetery. Stage-prop tombstones, in the grisaille style, complete with overgrown vines, share her space. That the whole image is an oil painting adds to the artist’s questioning of notions of reality and illusion in figurative art. Lois Dodd’s Two Windows, Clapboard Siding doesn’t have a bit of nature in it, unless you consider the muted light fitfully illuminating the pale ocher and dull green of the façade, a section of which completely fills the picture space. Through the windows we glimpse tattered fragments of wallpaper, apparently in some scribbly overall-foliage pattern. The derelict condition of the house plays against the abstract geometry of rectangular forms. Dereliction takes a more romantic turn in Robert Gniewek’s Edmond Place, Brush Park (2004), an extremely wide-angle oil. As in a multipanel Japanese screen, some sections are emptier than others. The left-hand third is mostly sky and sidewalk, with a boarded-up brick factory in the background. The center is dominated by an elegant tree in full leaf, while the right is nearly filled by a Victorian brick mansion, its windows eyeless or boarded up, that has a Hopperesque feel. A wide, empty stretch of pavement pulls the three sections together.

Some painters confront nature in a more direct way, with varying degrees of success. Raphaella Spence’s Exterior (2007) is a conventional summer-blue shorescape, breezy but not particularly arresting. Mark Workman’s Crossing Paths (2006, acrylic on paper, the only work on paper in the show) features a showboat sky display of sun breaking through a knot of dark clouds and gilding the edge of a wave below. The old-fashioned bombast is exhilarating, and the unusual color palette—sulfurous yellow, grey-violet and charcoal—is intriguing. Two studies of trees and water are lovely. Charles Jarboe’s Maples Along the Monarchy (2002), an elongated view of a woodland stream, has marvelous translucent yellow-green leaves hung like swags of lace between the nicely spaced tree trunks on the near bank. Emma Tapley’s Inverted Treescape (2004–05) is more conceptually charged; it’s also lyrically beautiful. The entire composition is given over to a watery reflection. In the lilac-grey water black tree branches tremble out of focus, making graphic strokes with a gothic edge. A few light brown leaves skim the surface, paper-thin yet convincingly three-dimensional. If you’ve ever gazed into the upside-down reflection world and wondered if you could get to the other side, this painting will have a special magic.

Not everything here is on that level, and it’s difficult to see how Jessica Rohrer’s Honda Civic (2006) fits the admittedly elastic rubric at all. Beige-on-beige, it depicts the eponymous car in front of a wall of house siding with ruler-straight lines. A neighboring building is reflected in the car window, a popular Photorealist device, but there is little acknowledgment of the urban context. Still, when many galleries see summer as an opportunity for an unchallenging exhibition, this group show was thought-provoking. The curators note: “Reality is time and focus, ever-present, ever-changing. Whether using flat imagery or painting from life, the artist is bringing his or her own experience through the actually process of painting to the final image.” Bernarducci Meisel Gallery is located at 37 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 593-3757. On the Web at bernarduccimeisel.com

American Arts QuarterlySummer 2007, Volume 24, Number 3