Thursday, September 10, 2009

REVIEW: Elizabeth Nelson and David Smith at Art House in Craftsbury.

By S. Gulick

The show of works by Elizabeth Nelson and David Smith at the Art House in Craftsbury Common combines two groups of work in which many outward contrasts conceal an effort to deal with an aspect common to both works. This show was originally scheduled to run until the 15th of September but has been extended through the 3rd of October.

The Gallery space of the Art House is fairly small to start with, and the Nelson-Smith show occupies only half of the available space. This has imposed an economy of choice on the artists – they each have a small number of works which at once emphasize the internal consistency of the works of each artist and highlight the surface contrasts between the two groups of work. There is a contrast in season and palette. Smith works with the rich blues and greens of summer, and there is a warm tropical feel even to the streams and fields of New England which appear in some of his works; Nelson has chosen the chilly whites and greys of winter with faint touches of color in the snowladen pastel skies and fields. Even her Night Blooming Lilac (at left) appears to be set in a blizzard. There is a contrast in size. Nelson has chosen to show four works, three of which are large format; Smith has 5 smaller works and even the larger ones are smaller panels grouped together. Finally there is a contrast in feel, flavor, spirit, personality – I don't know what to call it. But Smith has carefully selected images which fit on his canvases and which study a repeated geometric or color motif. His lombardy poplars stand nearly identical in a line. His palm fronds are a symphony of repeated arcing blades. His field is framed and ends where the frame begins.

Nelson often starts with a photograph which has an element which interests her and matches her painting to the photograph. But her landscapes strain the boundaries of her canvases. Her skies and fields fight for space. The branches of her trees writhe off the edges of her night sky. The snow swirls dizzying around a viewer and it's obvious it's not just in front of the viewer but above, below and to the sides and it's only because the canvas ends that you don't see it there.

I believe what ties these two artists' work together is their common interest in the tension between the figurative and the abstract that appears in the works. David Smith on his website states that he approaches painting abstractly but works in a representational style because of its limitations. I believe he means that while geometry and color offer infinite possibilities, he allows the real world to impose limits on what he could otherwise do with brush and paint, color and form. The green arcs of the palm fronds against the blue in Big Pine Tree Tryptich, the cool columns of the trees in Poplars, the rippling light on the water in Tributary (below) all could stand alone as studies in color but are pieces of landscape observed and represented by the artist.

Before Photoshop it was generally felt that a photograph was as accurate a representation of visual reality as one could achieve. By anchoring her works to photographs and then working outward and expanding the reality they represent, Liz Nelson is likewise restricting herself to a palette and forms which resonate with an actual physical scene. But her imagination seems to chafe at the imposed boundaries. In Spring Thaw she starts with a horizon in a snowstorm but rapidly develops a snowstorm archetype which distills from the specific image a sort of general snowstorm essence. The trees and white blots--are they blossoms? petals? snowflakes? lights?--in Night Blooming Lilac have a strongly surreal nature to them.

These are clearly two artists with differing approaches toward painting, and the works they have chosen to exhibit emphasize the differences. But the show is held together by their efforts to deal with a common set of goals in reconciling a love for the abstract play of form and color, light and shade, with a desire to represent and reveal the wonders the material world can display for the eye.

I would suggest that a visitor to the gallery should go early on a bright day as the lighting in the gallery is mainly by daylight. A visit will provide a viewer with a wide range of color and texture to satisfy his or her visual appetite, and if one starts from Smith's statement about an abstract approach to the representational there's something for the mind to mull over as well.

ART HOUSE hours are Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday 10:30 - 4:00.