Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Learning to Look: “Nature is the Teacher” at the Painting Center

February 1 – 26, 2011
547 West 27th Street, Suite 500, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 343-1060

Simon Carr, School Girls, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 60 inches.  Courtesy of the Painting Center
Simon Carr, School Girls, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the Painting Center

There’s a paradox at the heart of how we experience art. While we may take pride in being art-literate, we absorb much of our knowledge of art (as for life itself) in unconscious fashion. Scrupulous study and debate may guide our understanding, but these are no substitute for the education we continuously and unknowingly receive through our eyes.

This is a very particular kind of education. Eyesight may be no more than the recording of countless ricocheting electromagnetic vectors, but it permits a startlingly rich connection with, say, a tree; the act of looking is a miraculous mapping of another miracle in the natural world. It’s an experience unknown to a person born unsighted, who may otherwise acquire every bit of knowledge about history, science, and human nature.

It’s no wonder that over a quarter of our brains are involved in processing visual stimuli, and that it takes new-born babies months to fully see. And no wonder so many great artists said they wished they could see like a child. Seeing truly, without habit or bias, was crucial. Many an artist could muster a sense of style and technique, but the masters surpassed at something more intuitive and unique to painting: the ability of giving pictorial momentousness to a figure’s gesture, or an apple’s location. Thank your eyes, then, and that quarter-part of your mind, if some mysterious power in a Titian, seen in the flesh, moves your sensibility in ways that defy your intellect.

This is an aesthetic not well suited to our time, when communications too often resemble talking points: fast, smart, exchanges that are instantly transmittable and promise quick mastery of a subject. We settle for very imperfect substitute-images in print and computer screens. Rather than asking ourselves if we are really seeing, we tend to seek new analyses of what we habitually see.

Deborah Rosenthal, Uphill and Down, 2010. Oil on linen, 38 x 38 inches. Courtesy of The Painting Center
Deborah Rosenthal, Uphill and Down, 2010. Oil on linen, 38 x 38 inches. Courtesy of The Painting Center

All of which highlights the indispensability of exhibitions like “Nature is the Teacher” at The Painting Center. “Nature lies in the faithfully observed motif and equally in the analytically invented form,” reads a sentence from the unsigned essay accompanying the show, and indeed the work of the four participating painters—Simon Carr, Stanley Lewis, Thaddeus Radell, and Deborah Rosenthal—argues cogently for the interdependence of visual awareness and artistic tradition. Connecting this diverse group of artists—and having become acquainted with each of them over the years, I can attest they are thoroughly different spirits—is the common urge to re-create nature in the language of paint. But their styles vary tremendously, and their diverse pursuits of narrative, symbolism, or process make for an exceptionally handsome installation.

Carr’s scenes of subways come the closest here to traditional realism. His heightened colors, however, lend remarkable robustness to figures, locating not just their physicality but their character. In one lushly scumbled canvas, the dramatic depths of a subway car interior, viewed from one end, encompass a nuzzling couple, kinetic drummers, and a distant LED sign, with colors somehow imparting independent life to each. In another, commuters bustle across a subway platform, but the scene centers about the yawn of a single child. In Carr’s canvases, all means of description and technique ultimately serve humanist ends.

Though his landscapes also depict real scenes, Lewis’ narratives concern the processes of observation and painting. Pictorially, the artist risks the most of any painter in the show, working with a kind of steady ferocity to rebuild appearances in fragmenting marks and planes. Weighted color and line yield poignant truths: a tree, thickly encompassing space among its branches, presides above a yard with a toy cart; totem-like structures punctuate the unfolding panorama of a public garden.

Radell’s surfaces, too, have the quality of weathered layering, but in more luxuriant, affirmative fashion. The artist constructs figures in arabesques of looping black outlines, with interior pinks set off by luminous blues and green-grays. The matte depth of his wax medium and his feathering colors conjure an idyllic atmosphere, with actual volumes mattering less than sensations of movement, light, and depth. Though identities are unclear—the figures might be warriors or shepherds—the paintings hum with the impulse to leaven modernist idioms of painting with echoes of tradition.

Stanley Lewis, Janie's Garden, 2008. Oil on canvas, 18 x 35 inches. Courtesy of The Painting Center
Stanley Lewis, Janie's Garden, 2008. Oil on canvas, 18 x 35 inches. Courtesy of The Painting Center

Although the most abstracted work here, Rosenthal’s compositions of organic, geometric forms and calligraphic marks abound with intimations of lyrical events. Peaked shapes, lofting across the upper portions of “Uphill and Down” (2011), might be distant mountains or sheltering tents. Exact significations are less clear, and less crucial, than the sense of a poetic journey and its attendant tribulations. The canvas is one of the artist’s two largest in the show, which both use color especially effectively, their varied, deep reds sounding against subdued violets and jolts of vivid green.

Time was, painters learned through their eyes, just as musicians did through their ears and dancers through their bodies. Due to the sheer complexity of nature, and the infinite possibilities of paint, it was a lifetime education. “Nature is the Teacher” reflects these four artists’ shared commitment to this learning, and reminds us how the one faculty of sight can lead to very different truths.

Thaddeus Radell, Embarkment, 2010. Oil on panel, 66 x 96 inches.  Courtesy of The Painting Center
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