This exhibition was produced at the Providence Art Club in July of 2004. The show featured historic work from the Club's permanent collection on view in the Dodge Gallery and contemporary work in the Maxwell Mays Gallery. The project was co-curated by Sara Agniel and Lauren Ciccione.
Excerpted from the catalogue for the exhibition.
This catalogue was printed at the Providence Art Club on the occasion of the exhibition, "scape". Curated in response to the Providence Art Club's longstanding reputation as a venue known for exhibiting landscape painting, "scape" was conceived as a contemporary foil to tradition. "scape" brings together a dozen contemporary painters working in the landscape genre with fourteen artists who contributed to the founding and history of the Providence Art Club over the last 125 years.
The Providence Art Club was founded in 1880 by a group of artists to stimulate appreciation of art in the Providence community. The majority of the club's fourteen founding artists, four of whom were women, worked predominantly, if not exclusively, in the landscape genre. A few of the founding members of the Art Club, such as George W. Whitaker and Edward M. Bannister, the latter a prominent African American painter, achieved acclaim and today are considered to have made substantial contributions to the history of American art.
As curators, we selected historic works from the permanent collection to illustrate the breadth of talent among the club membership over time. The permanent collection of the Providence Art Club contains many interesting and important works of art. While broad in scope it is far from comprehensive and unfortunately all of the founding members are no longer represented in the collection. In response to this fact, we chose work made around 1880 and later into the first half of the twentieth century to illustrate the continuing presence of the landscape genre in the work of Art Club members. Since 1880, the Art Club has continued to support a membership consisting of a number of widely known and recognized landscape painters, including Antonio Cirino and John R. Frazier, both exhibited here.
Another problem we faced when researching for "scape" was that a disproportionate number of women members' work was not present in the collection. Whether these members' paintings were never acquired by the club or whether they were lost over the years, today the collection holds few pieces from early women artist members. In response to this disparity, we chose later works from the first half of the twentieth century by recognized female painters such as Angela O’Leary and Mable Woodward.
The historic paintings in the show, when exhibited 125 years ago, were often cutting edge explorations of the boundaries of realism. By pairing these notable nineteenth and early twentieth century works with contemporary interpretations of landscape, it is evident that today’s artists continue to depend on their environment, whether urban or rural, as inspiration for creative expression.
The contemporary work included in “scape” explores the relevance of the landscape genre to artists in the 21st century. As one of the most basic forms of expression in early image making, and one of the classic “academy” genres, it is perhaps unexpected that so many artists today working in a post-post modern environment focus their labors on landscape painting. While traditional media such as oil, acrylic, and watercolor continue to dominate the works produced by the twelve painters in “scape”, techniques like working in series, varying perspective, and extreme simplification of the landscape evidence contemporary innovation.
Some of the artists pay reference to art historical tropes in their work. Michael Sherman’s light filled distillations of architecture intersecting the Roman skyline evoke traditions of the Grand Tour and artists’ eternal love affair with Italy. Sherman’s images vibrate between classic riffs on the beauty of Roman architecture and tense experiments in just how bare a rendering can be before it’s recognizable meaning dissolves. Deborah Grynberg too explores representations of Italy from a collagists perspective. Grynberg shoots photographs to combine as source imagery in her paintings. Here she shows a composition that combines the facade of a Venetian house, all implied order and decay – tenuously balanced past and present, with a view of ruins at the Roman fishing village of Osti.
Other artists in “scape” use the landscape as a mere vehicle for formal exploration, an excuse to push paint on canvas, by employing a simple formula of sky and land divided by horizon line. This is most evident in the work of Conor Foy and Thomas Sgouros. These two painters set up distinctly minimalist landscapes and use the planes of sky and ground to explore abstraction. Foy’s Irish landscapes are more realist than are Sgouros’, due to the fact that he works from photographs and incorporates the mediation of memory and distance to create images that resonate with longing for home. Sgouros’ work is all remembered, landscapes created from an internal vista he recalls but can no longer see in the world around him. He composes purely for color, form, and balance, the landscape in his hands is truly a vessel for the purest formal abstraction.
Catherine Hamilton pushes the simplified landscape even farther, abandoning both land and horizon to document the passage of the sun from dawn to dusk over one square of sky. Her strict dedication to representation is evident in even this series, one of her most abstract works. Untitled (Skies) is a loyal rendering of an actual place at a specific moment in time by a careful and painstaking realist painter. Monica Shinn on the other hand boils a similar composition down to different elements in her For the Late Pheobe. Shinn’s work is more physical and utilizes large format panels to give the viewer the sensation of confronting a landscape at human scale. Shinn allows a rhythmically simplified starry night to crash down over a field of darkened midnight ground, an overwhelming choice that is underscored by the minute size of her indication of a human presence in the lower right area of the composition. This work is also an invocation of 19th century traditions of representing nature as a sublime force, infinitely larger than the individual human.
The most visually spare yet conceptually complicated paintings included in “scape” are Adam Eckstrom’s Leaving the Ring, Disqualified and Moved On, Traces of the Departed. These monochromatic panels use texture to define the composition. The horizon line is suggested but not defined. Eckstrom uses the landscape as a stage where objects such the trailers in these pieces are strategically placed to interact with one another like actors in a play. His anthropomorphic compositions touch upon domestic issues and class conditions in American society.
The industrial areas that make up much of the American landscape are another strong influence on several painters in “scape”. Captured by Sarah Powers’ Power Plant Skyline Series, Jason Fiering’s Blount Seafood, and Mark Freedman’s Tanker, are the crude and intimidating quality of industrial structures. In these artists’ work, landscape painting becomes not only a way of documenting the beautiful, but rather the mundane vistas that make up our everyday life. These artists have stopped to record what most people drive by and barely look at, and by doing so elevate commercial and industrial, peripheral and forgotten spaces.
Capturing the ambiguous and ubiquitous malls and “big box” stores that now dominate the American consumer economy and likewise the landscape of suburbia, are Jason Brockert’s Small Mall paintings. Just as these types of stores threaten to annihilate individuality, Brockert’s compositions explore the anonymity and uniformity that these structures represent. He uses techniques of transparency and repetition to invoke an experience that is fast becoming universal. His work relies on traditional watercolor techniques to achieve effects that reference imagery created with film and photography.
Also focusing on the quotidian and familiar is Ida Schmulowitz. An abstract colorist, her landscapes evolve from painting the same streetscape from the same location for years on end. Schmulowitz now draws from memory rather than the actual objects that compose her view. Described through a vivid and captivating palette, the elements that vary in Ida’s paintings are seasons and time of day as they change over a static view.
Landscape painting in it’s most traditional form or it’s most radical distillation holds the attention of artists and viewers alike. This survey of contemporary work, contextualized by a local history, is merely a cursory look at the scores of artists working in landscape in Providence today. We hope that the survey is informative, engaging and challenging.
Sara Agniel & Lauren Ciccione
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