Connecticut’s Housatonic Museum of Art with Eclectic Landscape Exhibition: New Perspectives

Richard Friswell
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Martin Weinstein, Sun Dogs, 3x, (2011), acrylic paint on acrylic sheets.

In the United States, landscape painting has long served as a metaphor for other themes: symbols of our terrestrial treasures (in the case of the Hudson River School); a post-Civil War “return to order” (in the example of American Luminist painters); our complex national heritage portrayed by Regionalist artists in the Roosevelt era; or the broad, flat expanses of the natural and built environment manipulated by installation artists in the contemporary period. Whether it’s the view out our bedroom window, or from a high summit vantage point, landscapes speak to issues of identity, emotion, inclusion and alienation.

In the current exhibit, now on view at the Housatonic Museum of Art, in Bridgeport Connecticut, Pattern, Power, Chaos and Quiet, curator D. Dominick Lombardi, working with museum director, Robbin Zella, have brought together a number of contemporary artists whose work reflect a wide-ranging take on an otherwise predictable motif —while managing to successfully expand our perspective on the world around us.

Right: Exhibition curator, D. Dominick Lombardi, in the gallery during pre-show installation.

For Lombardi, this is an ambitious project, as he seeks to examine the landscape theme from several different angles in this and two other, upcoming curatorial efforts. “This first one might be the most straight-forward, in terms of asking questions, or posing challenges about our uses and abuses of the landscape,” Lombardi explains. “But, I believe it’s important because it asks us to consider the world around us from a very personal perspective—that of the individual artists selected for this show.” 

Left: Sandra Gottlieb, Cloud Study, Sunset #4 (2012), archival digital C-print.

Sandra Gottlieb’s haunting and hypnotic photographic studies of clouds seem to bring all the powers of nature into one single moment. The fiery forms filled with volcanic moisture pose many thoughts of a climate gone awry, while the majesty of the shapes and the sheer volume captured cannot be fully grasped in practical terms. The sensation evoked from viewing these works up close is one of ‘fight-or-flight.’ But, the tumult captured in these scenes—and their subsequent ‘darkroom’ treatment by the artist suggests that it may already too late. The world portrayed by the artist appears to be in abject jeopardy.  The exhibition catalogue hints at this apocalyptic theme: “Some suggest we should look to the sky, to the heavens for answers, yet the information we seek can bring concern or doubt about our planet’s future.”

Right: Martin Weinstein, Lily Beds, Evenings (2012),acrylic paint on acrylic sheets. 

Martin Weinstein’s multi-layered paintings on plexi create a dreamy atmosphere as nature is presented as a multiverse of time and space. The artist relies on a combination of realism and semi-abstraction to create a complex painterly narrative, moving from detail to atmosphere, then back to detail. Dream-like in its qualities of capturing both the seen and imagined in our natural environment. A resident of the Hudson River Valley, Weinstein makes the most of backyard vistas and local settings to create his art, proof that one need not go far to discover worthy surreal subject matter for a successful series of paintings like the ones selected for this show.  “And it is that dreaminess—that alternative awareness—that attracts us to these works,” according to show organizers, “as they are a perfect combination of memory and reality.

Left: Nolan Preece, Subterranean Flora (2014), digital archive pigment prints of chemigrams, edition of 10.

And it is that very sense of otherworldliness, as Nolan Preece’ gardens of unearthly delights capture  chaotic patterns hiding in plain sight in the natural world. “To accomplish this, the artist paints directly onto photographic paper with darkroom chemicals to create intricate networks that recall the more visceral aspects of nature.” Visually and dramatically challenging, this work reminds the viewer of the compositional perspective of many 19th century, Hudson River painters: that is to offer sublime views of the world. “Sublime,” in the old sense, to mean ‘frightening, but from a position of safety’ (think: Frederic Church’s Niagara Falls). Likewise, Preece embraces that same emotionally-engaging view of nature, relying on “science through photographic processes and chemistry to create his wild and wonderful renditions of landscapes,” that are ‘sublimely’ real in one respect, yet mythic in scale on the other.

Right: Brenda Giegerich (from top to bottom, left to right)- Now You See Me; Open Door; Contained; Boundaries; Melt Down; Hermitage; Abandoned; The Cabin (2017), oil on canvas.

The exhibition catalogue states that artist, Brenda Giegerich “creates surreal scenes a la Joan Miró or Max Ernst to emphasize the importance of one of the basic needs to sustain life in nature: shelter.” Her renderings of houses, yards and their natural surroundings are deceptively childlike, lulling the viewer into a false sense of complacency. Her agenda is profoundly more complex: being “intrigued by what goes on inside the home and how those suspicious intricacies are contrasted by what is perceived from the outside as being nothing less than bucolic or safe domicile.” Upon closer examination, her paintings reveal an analytic treatment of the meaning of ‘house’ and the complex, engaging, sometimes threatening dynamics that make that physical structure a ‘home.’ Our memories are tested as we stand in front of her work, recalling as we might, those innocent, childlike stick-figure renderings of ‘house-tree-daisy garden-sunny sky’ that were so automatically called up– perhaps acting as proxy images for more culturally or emotionally repressed events.

Left: Susan Sommer, Puzzling (2016), oil on linen.

Susan Sommer interprets her natural environment into a reductionist treatment of colors and shapes. Here, the natural world competes with the built environment as swirls of color co-mingle with stacked cubes of various colors and hues tamed into shapes that cut through and divide space to resemble high rise apartment buildings or other structures. Over-riding these idyllic free-form and totemic forms, areas of dark gray emerge, sometimes obscuring the scene behind, like malevolent fog moving in to undo the positive message of the scene. The exhibit catalogue points out that, “these figures are hulking and imposing yet there is more of a feeling of fascination than fear in the face of the unknown.” Despite this observation, the viewer is left to ask whether these semi-figurative elements in Sommer’s paintings are more deliberately symbolic of a negation of the underlying color narrative—and representative of some inherent, undefined sadness.

John Lyon Paul uses bits and pieces of crosscut, rough-cut and repurposed wood to create abstractions that are both curious and inviting. His assemblages, with their converging patterns and dynamic designs, breathes life back into the extracted wood. Referential at times, they suggest the kinds of objects we may invite into our homes, but, in the case of a large, two-doored hanging cabinet in the exhibition, the piece is conspicuously dysfunctional. While the artist celebrates the beauty and diversity of wood in an age of ready-made and assemble furniture, his work comes with a strong, implied message. His sculpture, Fawn Constellation (1980), above right presents an idyllic interpretation of a baby deer until, upon closer examination, it is clear that haunches and legs are rendered of gun stocks and axe handles, with a carved, crescent moon placed at the point on the shoulder where a perfect kill-shot should be aimed. Paul’s warm, inviting sculptures invite a sense of comfort and utility, unless the hard questions are being addressed by his work about the current state of our environmental stewardship and waste-oriented brand of consumerism.

Left: Mark Sharp, Untitled (2016), mixed media on canvas.

Mark Sharp address the color and textures of landscape through the creative use of fabric constructions. His abstractions bring some of the basic elements of nature—floral patches, billowing cloud-filled skies, furrowed patches of earth, stony outcroppings, swirling woodland streams into a magnificent mix of coalescing textures and tantalizing tones. His forms and colors appear to clash, as they overlay one another in an effort to dominate the crowded space given to each work.  Here, Sharp symbolically captures nature’s ‘survival of the fittest’ motif, captured in gestures of layer-upon-layer of cut, stained or painted fabric scraps retrieved from the remnants bin of some fabric store, culminating in a clash of patterns pressing and posturing for placement. The artist’s treatment of these humble materials elevates the material to a level that offers possibilities for re-appropriation of the world’s resources to create powerful statements about memory, utility and the complex, layered nature of our natural surroundings.

Below: Gloria Garfinkel, Obi #7, (2001-2), oil and acrylic on shaped canvas.

This exhibition features Gloria Garfinkel’s Obi series, in particular. As a devoted Japanophile (after several trips to that country), she uses Japanese culture as her springboard for creating a series of horizontal works that celebrate features of color, form, texture and design indigenous to their culture. Her Obi pieces “have an overall horizontal format indicating landscape, however, the abrupt angles that accent the design speaks equally of mid-Modern architecture as it does to the harmony of nature.” Borrowing from Japanese lifestyle illustrations from previous centuries (Ukiyo-e), these assemblages cleverly interpose various patterns and colors to form vibrant, other-worldly landscapes of our imagination. The exhibition catalogue states it best as, “this combination or interweaving of nature and architecture recalls Garfinkel’s study of Japanese culture and art, while the mix of delicately sweeping narratives and nuance elicits joy and optimism.

The Housatonic Museum of Art is one of the great, little recognized treasures of Connecticut, located as it is, in the heart of the Housatonic Community College campus. But their commitment to collecting and exhibiting world-class art and artists over the years earns them a place among the most respected of institutions. Pattern, Power, Chaos and Quiet is on view until March 31, 2018, and is well worth the trip to Bridgeport, CT

By Richard J Friswell, Managing Editor

Pattern, Power, Chaos and Quiet    

Housatonic Museum of Art

Through March 31, 2018


One Comment

  1. Diane Lombardi March 13, 2018 12:42 pm

    Love this comprehensive review of the exhibition. Look forward to seeing the show soon…

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