I came disposed to like “Atmosphera” at the Kennedy Heights Art Center. I was looking for it to calm me down after a hellish drive there from Covington. Street fairs and construction thwarted my attempt to get on I-71 N. I ended up as far west as I could go on 6thStreet, and my only option was to get on I-75. I started to turn right onto Central Avenue, but a female cop approached with a look of “You can’t do that.” As I was trying to explain my dilemma to her, I was hysterical enough for her to say, “Calm down. Take deep breaths. We’ll get your there.” And she did, stopping traffic so I could make a U-turn on Central and head back to Kentucky. In other words, go back and start over. All in all, it took an hour to get to Kennedy Heights, twice the normal travel time.
So you can see why I thought the exhibition featuring three artists–photographer John Weller, watercolorist Angela Mascolino, and pastel artist William Linthicum—who were exploring “the idea of atmosphere as subject matter of air, sky, and environment as well as atmosphere as ambiance, mood, and feeling,” per the press release, would settle me down.
But as soon as I entered the first gallery, I encountered a roadblock. Whoever designed the installation must have delighted in hanging two works that shared subject matter, viewpoint, size, palette, and treatment next each other. Both were beautiful lush woodland scenes with light filtering through a wall of green. Then I read the labels: Trees at Sunrisewas a digital photograph by Weller, and Into the Woods a watercolor by Mascolino. If I were asked to identify them on an art history quiz, I had only a 50/50 chance for a correct answer.
I wondered if that type of similarity was an anomaly in the exhibition. It wasn’t. I think the three illustrations shown here make this point clearly.
What bothered me about the exhibition was the missed opportunity to present three artists whose artistic visions were distinct. The only thing that distinguished these three was their choice of mediums. But they seemed to be more interested in denying them than glorying in them. Linthicum’s pastels could pass as photographs. Weller’s photos could look like watercolors. And, essentially all of Mascolino’s watercolors lacked the looseness that I associate with the medium.
In Linthicum’s artist’s statement, he declared his devotion to the medium.
I am drawn to pastel because the drawing process is visceral and tantalizing. Using my fingers, palms, and forearms as my brushes, I build color in layers by crushing the pigment into the paper. The tactile process connects me with the elements I depict. (Really?) The input is physical, but the outcomes are spiritual.
Linthicum focuses on clouded skies and low horizon lines. At the bottom is a band of landscape, too dark to recognize; it might be a view of distant mountains or an endless plain.
The works reminded me of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black-and-white photographs of the ocean from the 1980s. The biggest difference is Sugimoto’s were always bifurcated by the horizon line.
In addition to that compositional ploy, another thing that differentiated the two artistic visions was how Sugimoto’s seascapes seem endless. Linthicum’s clouds keep everything on the surface plane, blocking any view beyond them, as clouds actually do.
Two standouts by Weller verge on the abstract despite their recognizable subjects. The color Morning Dock,showing upside-down canoes lined up on timbers on the dock, is striking. Even more arresting is Dock Mist where the weathered dock seems to extend into infinity, disappearing into the fog. The perspective view seems forced and unreal. The dock is in the center of the composition with poles that stand stoically on either side of it, guarding or framing the dock.
Some of Weller’s work has a Japanese bent. In fact, he explains, “That the mode I try to convey is one of calmness, serenity, tranquility—perhaps the Japanese word wa describes it best. Moments of harmony, peace, and balance (the definition of wa), are far too rare in our lives but within them lie the seeds of contentment.”
The Japanese aesthetic is clearly expressed in a work in which black branches are silhouetted against what appears to be an endless pond. The leaves are the color of green and of dried blood so it might be on the cusp of autumn. Weller takes the same approach with River Ripple, Oxbow Island, and Spring Reeds.
Mascolino’s watercolors lacked personality. And her flowers appeared totally out of sync with the exhibition’s premise. They were a stretch for inclusion, even if the show allowed for “atmosphere as ambiance, mood, and feeling.” I still couldn’t reconcile her flowers, especially the tightly painted Dogwood Branch,shownfrom the back against an unmodulated black background. I believe the only piece where her medium of watercolor was celebrated was Terra Branch, but terra is earthbound, neither sea nor sky.
“Atmosphera” was a pleasant viewing experience, but it had the potential to be much more.
–Karen S. Chambers