Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Stuart Shils: Recent Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery and John Dubrow: Small Landscapes at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Shils: November 20, 2008 to January 10, 2009
724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th streets
New York City, 212 262 5050

Dubrow: January 8 to February 7, 2009
37 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212 750 0949

Stuart Shils Looking Down from Monte Castello, A Garage with an Open Door 2007. Oil on linen mounted on panel, 13-3/8 x 11-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Stuart Shils, Looking Down from Monte Castello, A Garage with an Open Door 2007. Oil on linen mounted on panel, 13-3/8 x 11-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery

One suspects that few young, ambitious artists these days would try to base a career on faithfully painted landscapes. But two mid-career painters – Stuart Shils and John Dubrow (who paints the figure as well) – have spent many years doing just that, and with a good measure of success, as underscored by recent shows at their respective galleries, Tibor de Nagy and Lori Bookstein.

Landscape (and its close relative, cityscape), of course, has quite a tradition. Masters ranging from Pietro Lorenzetti to Claude Lorrain and from the Limbourg brothers to Diebenkorn have explored its special qualities of sunlight, atmosphere, and panoramic depths. From our vantage point, we can see that technical proficiency and stylistical charm count for less than a landscape painter’s temperament; we value Corot more than Daubigny, and Seurat more than the pointillist Ker Xavier Roussel. The traditional requisites, few but daunting, begin and end with avid observation and finding vital equivalents in a language of paint. The landscapes by both Stuart Shils and John Dubrow show a refreshing awareness of this, and both approach their motifs with considerable focus and little posturing or fuss.

Stuart Shils’ exhibition of nearly 20 paintings reflects his familiar technique of layering and blending colors to produce rich atmospheric effects, usually on small canvases and panels barely a foot across. Close inspection revealed extensive, careful reworking, with colors scraped or wiped down and reapplied to create quietly throbbing depths. Lines, drawn in with a pencil or scratched with a pointed object, serve as a kind of framework defining the edges of buildings and ground planes. With their soft edges and inner incandescence of color, they come close to ethereal, almost nostalgic visions of urban and country life.

Shils’ subtle feel for the effects of light was much in evidence at Tibor, in, say, the difference between a building’s sun-drenched walls and the absorbent depths of its shadowed portions. Some of the paintings also revealed other qualities of particular interest. For instance, in the painting Umbria Farmhouse on the Road up to Corciano (2008), the simple rhythms of the blocks of color describing a house – a blazingly bright warm white for the first floor, a slightly more retiring ochre for the recessed second floor – culminate in an awkwardly angled eave that holds vividly before the deepest of medium-blue skies. One senses forms commanding the dimensions of the canvas – like they might in a Courbet — rather than being mere receptacles for atmosphere.

Similarly luminous tensions animate From Ray’s Kitchen Window, Near Union Square(2008), a very horizontal composition in which the boxy intervals of high-rises deftly pace the 42 inch width. Traveling its length, the eye circulates among myriad reddish and yellowish facades that convey not only a particular weather but also the full breadth of the scene, which is measured out by sudden, small glimpses of the sky at the horizon.

Elsewhere, such intervals are often eclipsed by the atmospherics. The indefinite divisions between ground plane and buildings in A Field Toward the Edge of Georgetown, Late Afternoon (2008) drain the impact of a small and especially pinkish building within an indefinite zone of burnt sienna facades. At such points the scratched and penciled lines seem like decorative means of maintaining identities rather than concentrators of impulses. However, Shils is on top of things – artistically and topographically – with Looking Down from Montecastello, A Garage with an Open Door (2007), which imparts a jewel-like precision to the sun-drenched structure, tiny in its poignant distance. And yet, and yet — that evocative haze of ochre-greens and blue-greens in the foreground leaves one longing, just a bit, for the quirky rigor of Bonnard’s trees, which manage to claim their pictorial real estate no matter how fuzzy they appear.

John Dubrow Umbria 13 2008. Oil on linen, 7 x 9-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art
John Dubrow, Umbria 13 2008. Oil on linen, 7 x 9-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art

At Lori Bookstein, John Dubrow’s nearly 30 landscapes are tiny by his usual standards.  Even at eight inches in width, though, they evince the efficient brushwork and decisive, reductive descriptions of his larger work.

Dubrow has always been a capable and strategic colorist, one who tangibly weights the location of forms with subtle pressures of hue. Near the left edge of Weaver’s Farm 1(2008), for example, the fringe of leaves around the top of a tree gleams improbably next to the cavern-like deeper greens at the tree’s core. This, however, perfectly conveys the actual, galvanizing effect of strong sunlight. Up close one can see how the artist has dragged a duller beige over the field at center – a move that, again, settles it palpably among the nuanced surrounding greens. Such local light effects, moreover, add up to complete descriptions of atmosphere, giving a warmer, slightly misted impression to the panoramas of Italian scenes (installed on two opposite walls) and a cooler, closer ambiance to wooded scenes of upstate New York, hanging in-between.

These small paintings all have the aspect of studies, in that they seemed intended for the artist’s own education. They evince no egotism or hunger to be anything greater, and also a faith that nature will supply any necessary drama: whatever moments of expansiveness, contraction, resolution or relenting that might engage the eye. This reticence turns to downright passivity of perception in Umbria 1 (2008), which registers differences of hue but not of weights of colors, leaving it rather inert. But Umbria 3 (2008), shows more active observations of color; here mauve and green and yellow ochre shapes stir about the painting’s center, setting the distant and foreground fields centripetally into the corners. Why does Umbria 19 (2008) remind me, ambivalently, of Brice Marden? Perhaps because it records a hillside as an undulating, fishnet-like patchwork of forms – as elements in constant movement, but towards no abiding direction – and one realizes that it is a truthful, if not particularly urgent, experience of a hillside rising evenly before one’s eyes. Such paintings show considerable merit, but the subject matter reminds one of how actively inventive Corot’s Italian sketches are. (The French master was known to move a tree as needed, even when he worked on-site.)

But when nature provides the occasion, Dubrow rises to the challenge. Umbria 13 (2008) uses generous shifts of scale to measure out a journey of events: the exceptionally dark tone of a foreground tree, leading to a scramble of spreading fields dotted by the singularly bright note of a road or house, and settling, at the diagonally opposite corner, in the compact note of a cloud above distant hills. Here – as in work of the masters – adventure seems not just consistent with faithful observation, but its indispensable partner.

The exhibitions of Shils and Dubrow overlapped by only a couple days, just enough to allow fresh comparisons between the two. Their differences intrigue: could it be that Shils seeks evocative means of representing, while Dubrow peruses the workings of representation itself? In any event, both painters in their latest exhibitions seem at times to proceed by rote, as if fulfilling public rather than personal expectations. Their best work, however, confirms that the genre of landscape remains a vehicle for original observations, and for their realization in paint.