Landscapes from Home and Middle-Earth
Rick Dula’s industrial landscapes at George Billis Gallery; John Rasely at Allan Stone; David Dewey at Bernaducci-Meisel.
Rick Dula’s handsome, precise depictions of industrial sites in the Rust Belt have much in common with traditional still life painting. Refineries, storage facilities, metal works, grain elevators and warehouses provide pretext for the play of geometric and volumetric ideas that undergird table-top arrangements of melons, tankards, boxes and baskets.
Power lines and cables function like the pipe in Chardin’s “The Smoker’s Case” or the customary knife angled on a table edge as a directional drawing the eye into pictorial space. The labor-intensive demands of Mr. Dula’s style, the skill and effort of his production, lends piquancy to his true subject: de-industrialization. The French phrase “nature morte” seems particularly appropriate here: homo faber—man the maker—is part of nature though the death on view is anything but natural.
Observed close up and in tranquility, these aging facilities are placed against the sky like a Dutch still life against a neutral backdrop. And, like the Dutch, the artist is drawn to vanitas themes. The Denver-based Mr. Dula is not didactic; he simply brings high-tension focus to sites that, by their nature, function as emblems of the fickleness of fortune. Mr. Dula’s “Steel Mill Study” offers a meditation on the limits of temporal power and prosperity as chilling, it its way, as the empty eye sockets of a 17th century trompe l’oeil skull.
“Fiberglass Plant Study,” is a lovely, completely realized painting preliminary to a larger view seen through rain in dying light. Despite the difference in subject and high viewing angle, the study brings to mind Whistler’s etchings of London wharves and docks in the 1870s. The effect of mist and rain is beautifully handled, almost Whistlerian in its delicacy and punctuated—like a night time scene on the Thames—by scattered lights.
Every painting on exhibit asserts the structure of buildings against the light ahead of any particular local atmosphere. In the full view of “Pueblo Steel Mill,” fretted branches of a line of trees, blurred by their place in the middle distance, soften the hard angles of buildings. A muted sienna, tree color links the warm tones of background achitecture to the rusted tenor of the foreground. Atmospheric anecdote is even futher reduced in the compelling smaller study, emphasizing the design of foreground components: spools of steel cable laid out on the ground like plums on a tablecloth.
Quirky and delightful, Robert Rasely’s meticulously crafted, richly colored panels merge the exaggeratedly manic character of a Bosch inferno with the flavor of Gregory Gillespies’s interiors. Something of J.R.R. Tolkien hovers as well. On view are altarpieces painted by a brooding Hobbit for cultic purposes in the bowels of Middle Earth. Gift or doom? Don’t make me choose.
Reality and unreality, hints of humor and the demonic, are joined here at the hip. Fastidious detail summons an enchanted wood of the mind where absurdity is recognized as a malformation and source of disquiet. “Por Sermi Divina Luz” (1995), a sublunar shrine to nameless grotesques, unnerves. “Blissing of the the Harvest” (1995), is a one-eyed, disfigured still life for some crook-backed dwarflord in his cave.
|Portrait of the Artist as a Kingfisher
Fowl are the only worldlings admitted to this troublesome realm. Beautifully rendered, they manage baleful, unorthnological expressions. My favorite is “A Portrait of the Artist as a Kingfisher” (1997). Bird and background, with its pale milk moon over a treeless landscape, are spendidly realized—Martin Johnson Heade in purgatory instead of the tropics. Note the delicately rumpled feathers and red-and-black striped legs of “The Good Neighbor” (1997); the bird is a prisoner of uneasy specifics in an anxious pastoral. And Mr. Rasely is a sly genre painter for fallen fabulists.
Watercolor is an exacting medium. Its relaxed liquidity lulls you into thinking it is easy to work. In reality, it is an easy medium to use badly and a hard one to master. It cannot be readily edited without risk to the surface structure and reflective capacity of the paper. Because pigments are washed across paper in necessarily thin layers, maintaining surface integrity is critical.
David Dewey is a master watercolorist. He combines the decisiveness of an etcher with empathy for the fluid movement and lapping edges that are part of watercolor’s reason for being. He is also an elegant stylist with a strong pull to both modern abstraction and 19th century American Luminism.
On view at Bernaducci-Meisel is a medley of small, casual scenes of houses and docks along the Maine shoreline and formal, over-sized panoramas. “Winter Harbor” (2005) is an impressive technical achievement, worked wet-in-wet to maintain the smooth, unbroken quietude of continuous strokes across a grand expanse. It is also a stunning view; color changes rise and melt into one another above an emphatic yet suggestive horizon.
In the luscious little study “Sole Mooring” (2004), Mr. Dewey dives in and grabs his medium by the scruff. Here, he gives room to watercolor’s natural pooling and eddying; sea and sky keep a lively mottled effect that he excludes from the silken surface of the larger works. Texture is secondary to color in the low-horizoned, semi-abstract seascapes that dominate the show. Light is transformed by a beguiling unreality that comes alive in the eye. Color, not scenery, is the emotional component here. This is what skies would look like if appearances were consistent with their impact.
Edward Hopper’s influence is palpable in the solitude and stark geometry of several scenes. His lighthouse echoes from Mr. Dewey’s “Third Beach” (2004), affirming the particular richness of painting that acknowledges its antedecents.
“Rick Dula: Industrial Beauty” at George Billis Gallery (511 West 25th Street, 212-645-2621).
“Robert Rasely: Enigmatic Landscapes” at Allan Stone Gallery (113 East 90th Street, 212-987-4997).
“David Dewey: Recent Watercolors” at Bernaducci-Meisel Gallery (37 West 57th Street, 212-593-3933).
These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun, June 23, 2005.
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey