Pennsylvania Landscapes
Mark Workman at Fischbach Gallery


Flower Pastels
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 Fischbach’s 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 ways.

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 means—all pieces here are acrylic on paper—he 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 painter’s 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 man’s place in it.

Workman’s 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, Workman’s 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 Workman’s strong sense of design—dignity of spacing, overall grace of arrangement—evokes 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 Workman’s 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 Workman’s 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 Matisse’s 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 Matisse’s 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 pastelists—from Chardin to Degas and Redon—took 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 me.

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 hair’s 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 light—white 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. Sullivan’s flora conjure up John Marin’s sane judgment: "There’s the Daisy—you don’t rave over or read messages into it—You just look at that bully little flower. Isn’t that enough?


October 2000

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