Mark Workman at Fischbach Gallery
Billy Sullivan at Fischbach Gallery
The British painter Prunella Clough once admitted "I
like paintings that say a small thing, edgily." It was
a very English comment, running counter to the American preference
for Thinking Big about what art should look like and what
it should address. Accustomed to saying grand things about
art, American artists and commentators alike share a taste
for grandiloquence. The better to impress you, my dear.
Hence, the solace of this pair of unassuming exhibitions,
Workman in the gallery proper, Sullivan in the adjoining space.
As we should expect from Fischbachs stable, neither
artist troubles with the pretense that art is moving us toward
some historically appointed destination. Each works candidly
within traditional genres: Workman with classical restraint,
Sullivan with an agitated effectiveness that stands surrogate
for subtler qualities. They complement one another in tone
and intention, each revealing a certain edginess in very different
I like the temper of Mark Workman. It is marked by introversion,
is quiet and credible. He does not strain for effect. His
work, even when it reaches panoramic length, remains intimate
in tone and reticent in feeling. With a minimum of painterly
meansall pieces here are acrylic on paperhe conveys
a convincing sympathy with his motifs, often little more than
a stand of trees or a single one. And he is magical with trees!
He traces volutes of branches, contraposed to a winter sky
or sharp, sunless light, with rare delicacy. Call it love.
Workman lives and produces in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It
ought not surprise anyone to learn that he is native to the
area. You sense familiarity in the work. His landscapes are
presented as quotidian reality, something homely, observed
and understood from within. These are not "scenes"
that a tourist, on the qui vive for something picturesque,
might look for. And they testify to the value of plain statement.
Tension here derives from the painters scrupulous respect
for detail and the precise edges of things while, at the same
time, subordinating both to his own felt response. It is a
muted dialectic, yielding a taut sensuousness that pays equal
homage to the motif and to the transfiguring power of his
own sensibility. Home Planet, 1999, metamorphoses the
contour of a cultivated slope, outlined against cloudless
sky like the curve of earth itself, into a meditation on creation
and mans place in it.
Workmans pastorales are not innocent of progress. The
stark geometry of a piece of construction equipment rises
in the foreground of Shallow Pond, 1999. Live Wire,
1999, is dominated by a single utility pole, subject in turn
to the encroachment of vines and the casual disregard of a
flock of crows. Forget the voltage in the lines. Nature keeps
on advancing its claims.
Devoid of rhetoric, Workmans approach continues in
a gracious line of descent from George Inness. Among nineteenth
century American painters, Inness was pivotal in turning from
declamatory styles of landscape painting in favor of a personal,
sensual alternative. But Workmans strong sense of designdignity
of spacing, overall grace of arrangementevokes a classical
refinement that links him to Corot, as much as to the fathers
of landscape painting, Titian and Georgione. It is this element
of design, more so than his ready gift for the changing conditions
of air and light, that distinguishes him.
Too many contemporary landscapists rely on the decorative
effects of light and atmosphere to carry the day. Mood music
for the eyes. But Kenyon Cox, in The Classic Point of View,
was right to stress the difference between aura and pictorial
structure: "Without design there may be representation,
but there is no art." The serene austerity that undergirds
Workmans lovely atmospheric effects derives from the
rigor of his will to compose. It is a crucial component.
Billy Sullivan is a more forthright, less reflective artist.
His high-spirited suite of large-scale floral pastels supplies
counterpoint to Workmans quietude. Developed in a minor
key, there is an engaging manic quality to these pastels.
Excitable touches of high-decibel color hippety-hop across
the paper in an impromptu dance to Matisse. More precisely,
to Matisses insistence that "simple colors can
act upon the inner feelings with all the more force because
they are simple."
Perhaps. But the seeming simplicity of Matisses colors
was supported, on canvas, by beautifully worked surfaces.
A skin of jittery marks does not add up to a surface. Yes,
pastel is a drawing medium. But the great pastelistsfrom
Chardin to Degas and Redontook care with the stuff
of their chalks. Sullivan is most successful where he resists
the temptation to use the insubstantiality of flowers to acquit
inconsequential surface or off-the-hip drawing.
Peonies in Chinese Vase, 1999, is simply wonderful.
Composed on the traditional diagonal, its resulting rectangles
divide the picture plane into distinct color areas. Here,
color is solidly applied and texture builds, sustaining the
eye. Blossoms hold their shape against a lambent expanse of
pure cobalt, over a length of dense yellow that collects like
clotted cream. I would have loved to take this one home with
White Lilies, 1999, follows the same principle: establish
the big general image and have fun with color without breaking
everything up into counterfeit Impressionist bits.
Other pieces tend to bank on the shimmer of saturated, improvised
color spots to do most of the pictorial work. Enjoyable as
this is at first glance, there are dangers in it for artists
who want their work to bear sustained looking. Spontaneity
can become a pose, a hairs divide from give-a-damn.
Sullivan seems willing to sometimes skirt the line. It is
his instinct for organization that keeps him on the glad side
of it. An all-over play of color is anchored, given focus,
by the concentration of accents. Color moves to syncopated
cadences, structure provided by the rhythm of light and darks.
In Datura, 1999, chromatic momentum swells outward
from the orange rim of a clay pot, pulsing downward to a convergence
of dark leaves pointing toward the bottom of the picture plane.
Petunia, 1999, too, is weighted coloristically toward
the bottom. It masses the lightest lightwhite petunias
above a dark pool of olive shadow that spreads to the lower
edge. Intersecting these are intervals of green and pink keyed
to a middle tone that supports the extremes and draws the
eye into the motif.
Some time has passed since Pisarro mocked Renoir for being
"obliged . . . to make pictures to please." Artistic
revolutions have come and gone in windy succession, each of
them a parody of the real thing. Sullivans flora conjure
up John Marins sane judgment: "Theres the
Daisyyou dont rave over or read messages into
itYou just look at that bully little flower. Isnt