Marshall Harris, Saddle Sketch #1, Graphite on Mylar, 56" x 60", 2011

In Manifest Gallery’s current exhibition, Observed, 18 artists explore the act of seeing and working from direct observation in graphite, pastel, oil paint, digital media and video. Their subjects are seen as close as arms’ length to a distance of miles with one artist delving into animate forms drawn from the nebulous space of wavelengths outside the visible spectrum.

If there is a common thread among the artists, it is their rendering of palpable space in which light, shadow and tactile effects of trompe l’oeil invigorate still life, people, and landscape (interiors and exteriors), all to stimulate our presence. By confronting and engaging these works, we think before and within their immediacy. The detailed technical proficiency in some works counterpoints the lyrical gestures and painterly shorthand of others to pique our senses as if we are twinned to their evolution. In turn, we may assume the mantle of either protagonist or antagonist to their cause.

Derek Wilkinson’s Self-Portrait with Glasses is a tour de force of technical mastery. His head-on, frontal encounter is clinical and relentless. Pores, hairs, moistness in his lips and sclera are masterful moments of detail. However, beyond the reflection of himself in his pupils and the delicate refinement of his glasses’ rims, there is an overall air of “if looks could kill”. We are left short of breath and caught between his over-wrought realism and our yearning for signs of life.

Immediately to the left is a more humorous yet earnest depiction of the life still living. It is the fragile innocence of a young child in ghost costume guarded closely by her mother who stands at the picture’s edge. The re-worked surface of Nicole McCormick Santiago’s painting alludes to this painting’s happenstance. There are baby dolls, one perched and the other poised to fall from a large armchair as the child carries an oversized pumpkin basket towards us. In her shrouded costume, Ghost suggests a passion play yet to be discovered by the young and innocent. The raised brows on the pumpkin’s face hint at the turbulent journey this youngster will encounter just as the push toy to the left will clatter and tumble as it moves.

Life is also thematic and symbolic in the impressive still life Harvest Table by SheldonTapley. This pastel, 38 x 32” is a feast for the eye. It is a cornucopia, without the horn, of melons and peaches, a pickle, flowers, a bird’s nest with broken egg, scissors, ropes, a knife, drapery, images of female nudes from artists like Cranach and Rubens, the bust of a maiden bearing another basket of harvest and finally, two skulls lurking in the shadows off the table plus an equal number of discarded light bulbs buried in an open drawer. Strategic placement in the composition is charged with sexual implication and notions of fertility. There is the sectioned watermelon whose red pulp is loaded with seeds. The other plucked from the vine shows its navel-like stump all dried and withering. To the right, a pyramid of peaches and others are sliced open to reveal their pits. In the center, placed upon a white apron or napkin, a pickle is aimed in the direction of a narrow channel between two bricks supporting a vase that flourishes with an immense bouquet of innumerable flowers. Clothesline ropes are knotted, cut, tied and twisted, all mementos and symbols of the regenerative powers of fertility.

This bacchannal comes with a price. Tapley reminds us of this mortal coil, where the world outside is subtly suggested in the barren windows whose reflections cast upon the dimmed and discarded light bulbs. They rest in the open and unlit drawer beneath the table’s ledge as if viewed in an open crypt. Meanwhile two skulls off the table thematically bring us full circle in this treatise on vanitas.

Tapley’s skill at rendering these objects and fulfilling our wonder is stunning. His love for textures, surfaces, rhythms, and eye movement in, around, and through the arrangement never stops. As obvious as this allegory may be, its vital freshness is a resplendent visual experience.

Other still lifes, though less effusive, are not to be overlooked. Scott Ramming lays down a heavy bass note in Still Life with Bowl, Apple, and Broom. The situation is incidental to life with its allusion to fast food, an empty bowl, fork, napkin, and the half eaten apple casually crowding a t.v. table. There’s work to be done as we look downward to the broom and waste paper on the floor. He paints this thickly, opaquely and with a trowel-like touch producing a densely felt moment heavy as concrete. Its effectiveness reminds us of ordinary things which in a moment’s pause or rest can be appreciated for their simplicity and necessity.

Eve Mansdorf’s lush and broad brushstrokes in Crouch is a perfect antidote to works that verge on the heavier side of narrative. We are drawn to her tonal, suede-like palette and like the dog in the foreground resting on its back, caressed by a gentle hand. A simple still life comprised of a pink object, perhaps a sea shell, and a slender vase with3 daffodils, is centered between the two figures. The oval table gently echoes our eye movement. On the left, one girl sits cross-legged with the dog beside her, cupping her hand to her ear as if listening. This small but emphasized gesture with its saturated reds relates to the equally vibrant flowers and then to the beribboned redhead to the right. Her crouching pose and gaze observe something beyond the picture’s space and into ours. If we return this gaze, our eye moves back along the wall and then across to an empty portion of canvas in the upper left. We are back to the beginning. Here, implication of sight, sound and touch have realized the scene, full circle. This is a gentle and spontaneous nod to the creative muse.

But not all is calm. Neil Callander’s take on domestic life is considerably more disturbing in two paintings, Dusty’s Workspace and Dusty’s Stacks. These are select, cinematic, vignettes of dark basement corners eerily lit by flourescent gro-lights, a technician’s magnifier, and the ubiquitous 25 watt overhead ceiling light that barely illuminates the floor. The randomness of stacked books, vhs cassettes, cleaning solvents and other objects strewn about are commonplace to most basements.

It is, however, the specific inclusion of the gro-light, multiple Ghostbusters cassettes, beer cans and beer bottles, low powered artificial lights and pervasive darkness that portend that something is amiss. There is a feeling that we are witness to something undercover, illegal, anti-social, and weird. Callendar paints a collection of objects that imply compulsion, fascination with the para-normal, drug cultivation, isolation or something worse. Basements are notorious for unwanted possessions, obsolete pastimes and secrecy. Here, leftovers of drinking alone, the sugar high of a pie-stained plate and overturned fork suggest some fait accompli, just as the photon streaked image on the tv, is this Dusty?, offers remnants of the “big bang” and infinite time. Leave it to what’s in those half hidden coolers or scrubbed from existence to tell us more. In Callendar’s painting, I hear and imagine Sufjan Stevens’ melancholy lament to the tragedy of John Wayne Gacy Jr. and his victims. We are reminded that in Art, life can be terrifyingly beautiful.

Observed makes its point. There are reasons to make Art from direct observation. In the eyes and hands of gifted artists we may revel in the nuanced challenge of seeing and feeling all that is before us. In some, there will be a charge in the air that may seduce or repel us. These works embody those responses; we must open our eyes and feel the noise.

–Cole Carothers

2 Responses

  1. I think there IS something terrifying about the intensity of many of the paintings in this show. Compressing all those moments of observation onto a flat surface creates a startling effect – much like those time-lapse films of plants growing, or learning that your body is home to billions of organisms.

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