Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Part II

Last week I was out at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD. First time visitors often can hardly believe such a powerful Permanent Collection could exist in such a place. A few days ago I wrote a blog post about their newly renovated Singer Gallery and some of the work on display there now. Couldn't resist mentioning a few pieces hanging in the adjoining gallery in a show from the Museum's Permanent Collection. 

Above is a stunning small oil on paper by Albert Bierstadt (American born in Germany 1830-1902), In the Rockies. Probably painted mostly from direct observation, Bierstadt's oil shows us a masterful use of silhouetted mountain peaks for  emotional impact. The artist tones down all the contrasts in his warm colored foreground, urging us on as our eyes scale the crisply etched cool bluish cliffs. Bierstadt tells you where he wants you to look.

Thomas Cole (Am. 1801-1848) Study for "The Voyage of Life: Childhood", oil on canvas. 

A generation older than Bierstadt, Cole was the galvanizing force behind America's first stylistically consistent movement in painting, the landscape art of the Hudson River School. Prodigiously productive, Cole turned out an amazing number of paintings in his short 47 year life. That they had such an impact can be sensed in the drama in this study for his famous Voyage of Life series of four canvases. Here he is figuring out how to convey the wonder and the promise of new life with an infant raising its arms in excitement as an angel's steady hand on the helm guides the small craft. 

One of Cole's strengths in this painting is how he groups the baby and the angel together as one large light colored shape surrounded by all dark forms. Visually, as well as symbolically, the infant and the angel on on the same team. 

 Jasper Cropsey (Am. 1823-1900) Autumn Landscape with View of River, 1870, oil on canvas

Cropsey was another of the so called 2nd generation Hudson River School artists. He loved the russet colored foliage of Fall. In a painting like this Cropsey has first covered his entire canvas with a reddish underpainting that holds the wide open vista together. Even the sky, his coolest color area, has primarily shades of warm grays and oranges. What I believe the artist was after was a vision of an almost mythical unity of the heavens and the earth. 

The Hudson River artists were terrific draughtsmen. Part of expressive drawing involves having a variety of edge qualities to the forms. Both at the left side and the right side of his composition Cropsey deftly sharpens up just his favorite shapes and lets everything else soften into a mist-like reverie. 

It's fun to compare the stern and brooding Bierstadt mountain oil above with the softly beckoning warmth of Cropsey's world. Our inner lives know both those feelings. In paintings like these we see reflections of ourselves.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' New Singer Gallery

Yesterday I drove out to Hagerstown, MD to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Their Singer Gallery (above) has recently been renovated and reinstalled. For years it had been hung in "salon style" with rows of paintings stacked close upon each other. Now there are a new floors, walls and lighting.  And it's gone the other direction to showing only a few select pieces in a more open and sweeping presentation.  I love the new look of the Gallery.

Here are a two of the pieces on display now in the new Singer Gallery.

Sewing Girl by Charles Hawthorn (Am. 1872-1930) is a personal favorite. Hawthorne does a skillful balancing act between a smokey olive green background and the sharper cool greens in the woman's blouse. In person the color relationships of these greens to the woman's hair is exquisite. Hawthorne makes all his colors seem to quietly flicker and fluctuate. Worth a trip to the Museum right there.

Also in Singer Gallery now is the Museum's impressive Courbet (French, 1819-1877) oil Landscape. 

Courbet was a master at handling his pigments, making most of his edges slightly soft and blurred, and then sharpening others crisp and distinct. Also he was a man who knew that shadows always have their own unique color personality. Look at the dark cool shadows at the left compared to the lighter and warmer shadows in all the rocks at the right.

The Museum has a glassed-in rotunda surrounding its Anna Hyatt Huntington (Am. 1876-1973) bronze Diana of the Chase.

I was delivering my oil painting Stone City Barns to the Museum. It will be one of the featured prizes in WCMFA's annual fundraiser on March 6. Tickets are available to a raffle on the Museum's website.


Philip Koch Solo Exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 8, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sometimes a Bad Fall is a Good Thing

Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 30 x 40, 2011

Sometimes setbacks are good. As a boy, I often suffered a forced separation from my friends. Let me explain.

In my neighborhood riding bikes was big. Unless there was snow covering the roads it was the default form of play for my friends. For hours at a time they'd ride bikes. If one wanted to fit in, this was the place to be.

When I was six I got my first two wheeler- it was too big for me but my parents figured I'd grow into it. The only place I could practice riding the thing was our steep driveway. Instead of paved asphalt it was covered in crushed stone that was really too rough to ride a  bicycle over.

I walked the bike half way up the driveway hill and with a deep breath pushed off. Within seconds I lost my balance and went down hard, ripping through one of the knees of my pants and taking a gouge of flesh with it. To this day I still can see the little scar it left of my right knee. I was spooked and unfortunately stayed that way.

Subsequent attempts proved less bloody but my heightened anxiety kept me from having any hope of getting the balancing thing down.  It took me another two or three years before I finally figured out how to stay upright on the darned thing. In the interim, something interesting happened. When my friends went riding their bikes I felt bad about not being able to join in. To save face, I'd leave.

I figured I might as well entertain myself. With nothing else to do I'd and would go off into the woods to play alone.

Where I grew up was pretty remarkable. It was a heavy forest along the shore of Lake Ontario, east of Rochester, NY. Very hilly. Lots of pine, white birches, and my favorites, the smooth light grey trunks of beech trees. I loved how the woods felt. I became sort of an amateur naturalist but never bothered to learn much of the names of all the plants, insects, rock formations and the like. Mostly I just liked looking at it.

Kids by nature tend to be pretty social, yelling to each other, laughing, whispering secrets. All this is good, but I think kids also often miss a lot. My enforced solitude in a way forced me to slow down and let the look and feel of the forest soak into me. Alone you can listen to the trees, smell the crumbling wood of a old log. You begin to realize the natural world speaks to us if only you stand still long enough to take it in. It was lonely. I made up for that as best I could by opening myself to feel the personalities of the forest.

Finding your own way, finding out what delights you and where you want to linger. By accident I stumbled into these things. What a wonderful preparation for the art life that, little did I know, would be awaiting me.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Unlikely Friends: Hopper & Burchfield

Edward Hopper (Am. 1882-1967)

Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893-1967)

On the surface the paintings of Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper look very different. I feel they were both chewing on the same bone, but from opposite ends. Much of what I do as a painter myself owes a debt to the lessons I've gleaned from studying their work.

Burchfield's often over-the-top exuberance is always tempered in each painting by a conscious pulling back. He loved laying down networks of patterned strokes, but he knew just when to stop.

His watercolor below bustles with energy. The three building couldn't look more different. To that he adds conflicting patterns in rippling water, spindly tree branches, and powerlines. Yet how careful he is to include quiet and empty passages in the water and sky.

Burchfield, February Thaw, watercolor, circa 1920
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Without these quieter places where we can rest our eye we would find his paintings overwhelmingly active and would turn away. Who wants to exhaust oneself?

Hopper's more pared down world would be sparse indeed had he not known to throw in a few spots of unexpected complexity. They surprise and delight the eye. 

Hopper, Summer Interior, oil, 1909, Whitney Museum
of American Art

Hopper's early oil Summer Interior happens in a notably empty setting. Yet your eye is caught and held by a few strategically places details like the keyhole cut out in his bed board or the stripes on just part of the blanket.

Each in their own way, these painters spent a lifetime searching for just the right balance. It is a tribute to both that each actively admired the other's art despite their obvious stylistic differences.

Often Hopper's work is described as melancholy. It's true that there are paintings that have an emotional heaviness. But for each one of those there are two that dazzle us with some of the most brilliant direct sunlight anyone has ever achieved in oil. Look at the light and air in this one- who wouldn't want to walk into that room?

Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil, 1951, Yale University Art Gallery

While Burchfield is often dazzlingly felicitous he's no stranger to imagery that takes a darker turn. 

Burchfield, Night Scene, watercolor, 1935, Whitney 
Museum of American Art

Both these artists to me capture the full range of our emotional lives, from depressive gloom, to sudden intrigue, to heart-stopping delight. Knowing their work gives us clues to find some equivalents out in the world of what we are experiencing in our inner lives. In a way I believe they make us feel less alone.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Studio Visit Magazine Part II

Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32", 2008

In the previous blog post I talked about the just published Studio Visit magazine Volume 24 that features two of my major oils. It offered some background on my large oil Inland.  The second oil featured, Ascension, has an intriguing back story as well.

In 1976 I made my first trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and was floored by its long expanses of undulating dunes. The spaces seemed so open that I felt I was painting the whole of the world as I worked there. They called out for big horizontal compositions. 

A few years back I had one of my big Cape Cod panoramas hanging in my dining room.  A decorative mirror hung on a wall adjoining the long painting. It caught a reflection of the painting from an extremely oblique angle, causing it to appear squeezed into a vertical format. My wife Alice spied the image in the mirror. She loved how it looked and called me to see. 

The Morning, oil on linen, 42 x 84" 

The transformation of the painting was startling. A picture that had pushed your eyes back and forth, left and right now pulled your gaze up to the heavens. On the spot I resolved to do a painting about rising up. With it could come all sorts of feelings of transcendence, of letting go of worldly cares. I knew its title, Ascension, even before I had figured out what the composition would look like.

As I often do, I first worked my ideas out on a modest scale on a 20 x 16" panel. Satisfied with my composition, I stretched a 42 x 84" canvas and set to work, referring back to the smaller painting as a guide. I make a point to take all the time I need to get the forms and the color just right through painting and re-painting each passage several times. It can be a drawn out process. Inevitably the large painting takes on a life of its own. Certain areas depart from the original design, often becoming more inventive and evocative than the original oil. 

Ascension II, oil on panel, 20 x 16"

Through playful experimenting, the large version's far distant line of sand dunes ended up far more volumetric and more intriguing as a two dimensional design. It made a stronger statement, so I returned to the original 20 x 16" oil and repainted all the background forms. 

Sometime children outgrow their parents and teach their elders new things. So it was here. In light of this I re-titled the original Ascension oil to be Ascension II. Happily the painting was just acquired by a collector in Wilmington, Delaware.

Here's the spread in Studio Visit magazine, Volume 24.