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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE

Willard Boepple, "Bed," 2014. Wood, 64 x 92 x 45 inches. Photo: Étienne Frossard. Courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York.
Over on the east side of town, we have The Morgan Library and Museum, to which I was drawn by “The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon” (through January 18, 2015).

As anybody who has had to read up for orals in 19th century European painting knows, Rousseau, Daubigny & those other artists who constituted “The Barbizon School” made their mark in the middle of the 19th century in France.

They did this with sizable oil canvases of landscapes evoking the forest of Fontainebleau in north central France and its nearby town of Barbizon.

Evoking, I say, rather than depicting, because for the most part these were artificially created compositions based on studies and sketches—studies & sketches both drawn and painted and in either case made on the scene.

Still, even the finished Barbizon paintings were more “realistic” than the average Salon landscape, which (I suspect) was more heavily indebted to the ghosts of the past (could these ghosts even have been those of Claude and/or Salvator Rosa??).

Because of the Barbizon painters diverged from this norm, they were considered radical -- until the impressionists happened along in the early 1870s. Then the impressionists’ bright colors and their determination to exhibit paintings completed en plein air easily eclipsed Barbizon.

Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was the leader of the Barbizon School, and I’ve seen a number of his landscapes in various museums over the years. Although the paintings summoned up on the web when one keys in “Rousseau – images” seem to contradict my first-hand impressions, these first-hand impressions are of stately (not to say static) images, predominantly dark and heavy on the browns.

That said, the Morgan specializes in manuscripts and works on paper as opposed to finished oils on canvas, so this show of more than sixty works from many public and private collections doesn’t include any of Rousseau’s large finished paintings.

To be sure, it does have several preliminary studies for large-scale Salon works, but most of the works on display are smaller and more informal studies truly made from nature.

All are works on paper, and almost all are either in oil or graphite or black chalk (though sometimes they employ a combination of media & occasionally I noticed the use of pen, wash, crayon and/or conté crayon).

The good news here is that this is a most diverting show, with a heck of a lot to like. The less good news is that it starts out strong and winds up a little less strong—at least, to me. Then again, I am an awfully picky person.

Most of the works on view are divided up into five parts. The first is a delightful small group of Rousseau’s earliest oil sketches, made from around 1828 to 1833.

He was between the ages of 16 and 21 when he made them, and studying with neoclassical painters, but his little images of scenes in the placid countryside just outside Paris are fresh, vivid, and most pleasingly colored with whites, blues, greens and other natural earth-and-sky colors.

They reminded me of the little oil studies that the young Corot was making at about the same time in Italy, though perhaps not quite as crisp.

The second part of the show is another small group of drawings and oil studies made in 1830, when Rousseau went for six months to Auvergne, a sparsely populated region with many weirdly shaped volcanic mountains in south central France. These frankly romantic images, of steep waterfalls and little houses nestled in deep valleys, are very appealing, too.

A third part of the show displays works done from around 1831 to 1837, when Rousseau visited Normandy, on the northern coast of France, and drew pictures of picturesque villages and boats drawn up on the beach.

For me, the drawings here work better than the oils, with the sole exception of the larger & magnificently gold and white “Grotto under the Cliffs, near Port-en-Bessin” (1831). This one hangs on a partition in the center of the gallery, away from the rest of the Normandy pictures, so be sure to look for it there.

Most of the rest of the show consists of drawings and oil studies from Rousseau’s later life, when he was working at Barbizon and eventually settling there (from around 1835 to 1860). Here is where I have to confess that my attention lagged a little.

There are lots and lots of renderings of trees, both drawn and painted. Many of them are admirable. As I have said before in this column, I love trees. But I went to the country over Thanksgiving. There I saw lots and lots of real trees, with feathery loads of snow clinging to their branches and little bits of ice sparkling in the light from the sunny blue sky.

Though I felt guilty about it, I liked these real trees better than Rousseau’s trees—not only because they had so much more variety but also because too many of these later Rousseau tree images are preliminary versions of big sentimental Salon machines, and/or beginning to drown in Barbizon brown.

Then again, as I say, I’m a dreadfully picky person. By all means, go see this show—you’ll find lots to like – as even I did.

“The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon” was guest-curated by Amy Kurlander, an independent art historian, and coordinated by the Morgan’s own Jennifer Tonkovich.

MEANWHILE, IN CHELSEA….

….we have “Willard Boepple: Sculpture” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (through December 20). Although there are only three sculptures in this show, all three are good-sized, and the show itself is a joy to behold.

All three sculptures are composed of the long, narrow stick-like bars that Boepple has used so effectively in the past, all are dated 2014, and all are colored, but beyond that, each sculpture has its own shape and personality.

“Inside Out,” made of aluminum and colored a blackish brown (or maybe a brownish black), has a noncommittal title and a vertical shape. Seven stately feet tall, narrow, and (at first glance) square-looking, I was reminded at first more of man-made objects than forms from nature -- a skyscraper, perhaps.

As I came closer, I realized that this seemingly box-like composition in fact incorporates more diagonals than had been at first apparent, and they humanize it. It’s both the most contained of the three, and the trickiest—though this is not at first apparent, either.

“Colt” is also made of aluminum, but sprawls horizontally (and gracefully) across 11 feet. Whatever clues may be furnished by its title could be misleading: it’s too long, low and clustered with diagonals to resemble even faintly a small horse. Maybe it reminded whoever titled it of a gun?

Despite its silvery gray coating, the two long parallel horizontals stretching across its mid-section made me think of the body of a huge insect, with the raised diagonals rising & joining to become points on both sides.

These to me were reminiscent of wings, and the six strips the piece stands upon are the proper number for insect legs. (Could this possibly be a large insect--say like a young horse-fly???) Then again, all of this is irrelevant to its quality—of which I can say only that it works well.

My favorite is “Bed.” It’s the middle-sized one, also the liveliest and most nonchalant. Built of wood and colored a cheerful yellow, it’s another horizontal, but slightly less than eight feet long, and with many of its jazzy diagonals joining up to become what looks like a nose or beak in the air off to the end of it.

The name is a mystery. I get more of a feeling of a rocket or bird about to take off, but maybe the idea here is that it’s a take-off point for dreams?

I do hope Boepple isn’t too distressed at my efforts to convey the multifarious appearance of these effervescent sculptures in words that relate to other objects. It’s not just me that does it. Here is Karen Wilkin, as quoted in the press release for the show (and possibly in the book by her about Boepple that has been published simultaneously with this exhibition):

“Boepple approaches architectural scale in these shambling, animated constructions, which at once evoke industrial artifacts and creatures able to move under their own power.”

This pair of images looks exceedingly like multireferential imagery to me.

A CUTE GROUP SHOW

At this time of year, group shows sprout over Chelsea. Philip Gerstein has notified me that his work is in a group show at The Painting Center, though none of the other names on the announcement of Painting Center associates looked at all familiar to me (though December 20).

Dee Solin has similarly notified me that she’s in a group show at André Zarre (through January 24). The Zarre announcement includes many familiar names, past & present -- from Irene Rice Pereira & Charmion von Weigand, whose names I first encountered in grad school, on up to contemporaries like Peter Reginato & Kit White.

Tempting as these shows may be, I can’t review them all, and The One that has seduced me into enthusiasm this year is at a gallery appropriately called Flowers, the New York branch of a London establishment. To me, this show is as cute as a bug—a ton of fun.

It’s called “Small is Beautiful 2014” (through January 10). I gather that in previous years, this annual show has more often been held in London. This year in New York, we have 140 works of art by about the same number of artists. Most are pictures as opposed to sculptures (2 rather than 3 dimensional). None are more than 11 inches high and most are a lot smaller than that.

The show lines up all its little entries along its walls like a row of contestants at a beauty pageant, and with only numbers to identify them. If you want to know who did what, you have to get yourself a checklist. I started by going around the show without the checklist, and noting down the numbers of the works I liked best.

After I’d gone around the show, and noted down the numbers of those 30 works that I liked best, I compared my own list, first with the checklist (to get names) and then google (to find out who were the locals and who were the imports).

I learned that 9 of those I’d chosen were Yanks, 2 were Canadians, 2 were Brits transplanted to the U.S. – and 17 were living & working in the UK.

Either I have a violent unconscious prejudice on behalf of British art, or there really are more Brits in the total mix of this show than Yanks. This is perfectly okay, if that’s the way this English gallery wants to do it. (I didn’t have the strength to check out all 140 names.)

In terms of subject, style, and media, the range was equal among all nationalities & the workmanship was consistently high.

I didn’t spot any Yankee celebrities on the checklist, but a few Brits whose names (if not styles) are familiar to me were Gary Wragg, Derek Boshier, & Richard Smith. No doubt, being English, Flowers has more access to big names in London.

As to the works themselves, they include a smattering of perhaps predictable examples of the more fashionable styles, past & present. Among the fashionable styles to be found are minimalism, op art, mixed-media construction, & the requisite Duchampian shock art (an image of coitus).

Most of the work on view is more serious (or seriously diverting) representational work and abstraction. Some might call this kind of picture, especially if it’s representational, “traditional.” I prefer the term “classic,” and I might add that in a number of these classically representational pictures, the subject matter is provocative even when the technique is not.

Present are quite a number of multiples -- graphic work and photographs – as well as pictures in egg tempera, gouache, graphite or watercolor. For me, the big surprise was the very large number of works in oil as opposed to the far smaller number of works in acrylic. Is oil, after all these decades, staging a comeback?

Four exceptions to the procedure I’ve described are artists whose names had been on the original announcement, and had helped to tell me that this was a show I wanted to see.

In the case of the two Yanks, I know their work well enough to be able to identify it without the checklist. With the two Brits, I used the checklist & made a point of seeking out their work.

All four are abstractionists (okay, so that’s my hang-up).

The Yanks are Ann Walsh & Jim Walsh. Both are seen to good advantage, the former with a panel of her customary geometric acrylic on enamel, the latter by a characteristically fluid acrylic on panel.

The Brits are John McLean & Colette Morey de Morand. Both exhibit brightly-colored hard-edged geometric pictures, made with acrylic & other elements. I haven’t seen work by either artist for some time, but seem to recall that the earlier work in both cases that I have seen was more fluid than hard-edged and geometric. Again I ask, is this la nouvelle vague in the UK?

I shall now list the names of the other 26 artists whose work attracted my interest (for one reason or another). There are too many of them for me to describe the work of each in detail. Go and look and enjoy for yourselves.

First, the abstractionists (7 of them): Richard Smith, Stephanie Quayle, Shaun McCracken, Emma Douglas, Lex Braes, Gary Wragg, Erin Lawlor.

Second, the representationalists (12 of them): Nicolas Sanchez, Dina Brodsky, John Kirby, Ishbel Myerscough, Daniel Maidman, Patty Horing, Carol Hodgson, Tai-Shan Schierenberg, Derek Boshier, Neil Douglas, Isabel Young, Henry Kondracki.

Third, what Greenberg might have called “novelty art,” now grown respectable (not to say whiskery) with age (7 of them, too): James Linkous, Spencer Tunick, Pamela Joseph, Bradley Harms, Belinda Cadbury, Sarah Anne Johnson, Jiro Osuga.

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