By Invitation Only- May 2016 Exhibit Review by Mary McCoy
“By Invitation Only,” on view at RiverArts through May 29, is a zesty collection of works by eight artists imported to Chestertown from Easton, the Baltimore/Washington area and California. RiverArts conceived this show as a strategy for introducing fresh, dynamic ideas to its gallery and asked Ellie Altman, former director of Adkins Arboretum, to curate the show. Although there is no stated theme, not surprisingly, it reflects her background by centering on works that explore nature and natural processes.
These artists bring a broad range of mediums and approaches, yet the whole show is alive with interactions like a multi-fold conversation. Sculptor Marcia Wolfson Ray’s tall square tower constructed from vines, dog fennel and marsh elder stands beside Roberta Staat’s large oil pastel diptych of grazing cattle. Unrelated in materials and subject matter, they nonetheless share such rugged, energetic textures and warm earthy colors that they seem to belong together. It’s a curious but highly satisfying relationship.
It’s like that throughout the show. One artwork initiates thoughts, perhaps about the effects of light or natural patterns of growth or the flow of water, then another takes up the theme from a slightly different angle or even a radically contrasting one.
Wolfson Ray’s sculptures bristling with dried plants from dog fennel to hosta leaves are a total contrast to George Holzer’s large, shadowy photographs in which a root, a splinter or a leaf is isolated in a field of velvety black. The first is rustic, the second superbly elegant, yet both are skillfully crafted works that focus the viewer’s eye on the pure beauty and fascinating eccentricities found in plant forms.
One of two plein air painters in this show, Staat draws on time-honored traditions of landscape painting with her engaging waterscapes, farm fields and Chestertown scenes. Lending the show a satisfying sense of grounding, her work serves as a starting point in a dialogue on the possibilities of painting.
Her pure pleasure in capturing the landscape’s color and forms with strokes of paint is shared by Julia Sutliff, whose small plein air paintings brim with joyful, improvisational animation. Her dancing brushstrokes are quick and simplified as they capture sunlight falling on leaves and milkweed pods. Everywhere the seasons are in evidence, and their colors speak meaning to us. There are the bright greens of spring and new life, the maturity and peace of summer’s darker shades, and the pink of flowers that calls to mind love and sexuality.
This sense of nature’s joyful animation recurs in Eva Stina Bender’s exuberant watercolor drawings and Marilyn Banner’s lush encaustic paintings, two artists who explore the visual effects of flowing water but in very different ways.
With virtuosity as fluid as the watercolor itself, Bender washes loose fields of color onto her paper allowing the paint to wick along its fibers so that bits of pigment are captured along the way, very much as silt follows water as it flows. Exploiting this natural process, she deftly suggests the ever-shifting forces of nature, time and circumstance, ephemeral moments brought into focus by the trees and flowers that she casually draws on top.
Banner is also fascinated by the effects of flowing water, and she mimics them by swirling, dripping and dribbling layer upon layer of molten wax onto her wood panels. Her shimmering seascapes and close-up studies of the shifting sand and bits of shell and seaweed at the water’s edge are both depictions of her subject matter and models of the processes that formed them. The rich colors and myriad details of their many translucent layers suggest the passage of time, and strangely, they often look as much like vast galaxies as intimate glimpses of water and sand.
Time and scale are also slippery entities in Ruth Pettus’s many tiny canvasses entitled simply “Six Seasons I and II.” Composed of swaths of acrylic paint encrusted with sand, their size makes them feel intimate and introspective, yet they evoke sweeping views of faraway horizons, perhaps across an ocean or a lonely landscape in the half-light after sunset.
The visceral physicality of Pettus’s gritty textures and her spare, minimal approach to landscape carries over into Carol Minarick’s paintings. Minarick’s smooth expanses of beige, black and white contrast with rough, pock-marked surfaces as she sets illusionistic painting aside to create works in which the meeting of two flat planes hints at a broad horizon or brushy forms imply huge, billowing clouds. Sometimes she adds words that combine with her simplified imagery to conjure the raucous call of a crow or the forces of eons of geological time. The openness of her suggestions invites the viewer to open his or her imagination to multiple possibilities of storytelling and meaning.
The works in this show are like captured glimpses of the natural world, fleeting moments in which we see the results of things that have happened and the promise of things about to happen. While all these artists present strong, engaging work, what’s most exhilarating about the show is the realization that they are continually making discoveries as they work. It’s an ongoing creative process whose infinity of possibilities parallels the creative process of nature itself.
Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 am – 4pm, Saturday 10 am to 4 pm