Visiting the Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY

Last June I visited the Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY. Their new Director, Stephanie Wiles very kindly had given me a private tour. It was so impressive that two weeks ago I took my wife Alice to see it. Their I.M. Pei designed facility is unusual for an art museum, taking the form of a commanding tower overlooking the low mountains of the southern Finger Lakes of New York State. Great sweeping spaces where I spent much of my youth.

One Dutch Baroque painting in particular caught my eye, Diana and Actaeon, labeled simply Utrecht School, Circle of Jan van Bijlert, circa 1660. In it Actaeon, a young and very mortal hunter stumbles across the Goddess Diana, who is bathing in a forest stream accompanied by her retinue of nymphs. Famously chaste and easily offended by the young man's intrusion, she splashes him with water, turning him into a deer. Frightened, Actaeon runs off only to be tracked  down by his own hounds and killed by his fellow hunters who don't realize his true identity. 

I doubt one person in a hundred knows the Actaeon story. Despite that you can your find your eye drawn to it anyway. As I came into the gallery where this oil was hanging, it whispered "Hey, come look at me." 

What this painter achieved was weaving together eight figures and two dogs who at first had wanted nothing to do with each other. These old painters could be choreographers of the first order. In their hands unrelated fragments took up the rhythm of the painting and became part of a seamless whole. 

As Diana raises her arm to spray water onto unsuspecting Actaeon, her gesture creates a dramatic diagonal that is repeated in Actaeon's upraised forearm, in the bottom edge of his billowing red cape and even in the distant hillside behind him. Similar diagonal thrusts connect all manner of seemingly unrelated forms throughout.

Living in the 21st century, reality seems a bit different to me than it did to 17th century Dutch painters. My story is of necessity very different as is my style of painting. Yet much of the visual grammar of my work comes from studying the accomplishments of artists like the unknown one who painted Diana and Actaeon for us. 

Here's my latest. Grounded in the present, but with an affectionate glance back over my shoulder.

Philip Koch, The Sea, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2014


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