Anna Fine Foer on A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters at The Mitchell Gallery, St John’s College, Annapolis

“Critics, museums, commercial galleries and institutions of learning have largely chosen to ignore this growth of the contemporary realist movement, thereby serving to form an academy reminiscent of the French control of taste in the late 19th century. Meanwhile, contemporary realism and figurative art work thus relegated to the margin by many, but not all, leading thinkers, continued to grow, driven by a real desire and focus of spirit sustained by the younger artists of our generation.” George Nick, Curator of Sight Specific: A Selection of American Perceptual Painters, Concord Art Association, Concord, MA, June 2104

What is perceptual painting exactly? When I entered the Mitchell Gallery for the opening reception of A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters, I was greeted by unfamiliar names and images on the walls, despite the curator’s claim that the artists in this exhibit have inspired two, three, and four generations of figurative painters.

 

torque

Torque by Sangram Majumdar 2013

 

What was most interesting was talking to the painting students of curator Matthew Klos, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College. They were completely familiar with the names and work of these painters because Klos has inspired his students to learn from his mentors, many who are represented in this new exhibition.

After the opening, I returned to the gallery for a lunchtime lecture to learn more from the curator about this group of painters. Much of this article is a result of that conversation.
So, you may ask, as I did, what is a perceptual painter? It turns out, there is not an easy answer to this query. One can and should arrive at their own definition and connectivity to find common thread to tie this group together. There isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for Perceptual Painters (more work for Klos in the future).

Art Historian Ernst Gombrich discussed perceptualism in terms of universal perceptual and psychological responses that govern the reception of images across time and differences in culture. Jack Chambers called it “Perceptual Realism,” a visual art that is a “profound reflection of primary sensory experience, not simply a reproduction of it.”

Some of the painters in this exhibit are loosely associated with the Ashcan School, American Impressionism, and the Slade School in London. The Ashcan School was not an organized movement and the same can be said of Perceptual Painters. The artists who worked in these styles did not issue manifestos or even see themselves as a unified group with identical intentions or career goals. It is unclear who coined the phrase, artists or critics, or if the term was applied later, after the painters became more well known.

Since the title of the exhibition is about the lineage of perceptual painting, it is worth expanding on its history. Perceptual painting began with Charles Webster Hawthorne (American 1872-1930) who taught in Provincetown, MA. One of Hawthorne’s paintings in the exhibition, “Portrait of Tom Rowe 1930,” is an example of the incorporation of contemporary trends into a more traditional painting.

 

Portrait of Tom Rowe 1930 by Hawthorne

Portrait of Tom Rowe 1930 by Hawthorne

This discovery was prompted by a question from the audience (keep in mind that if you are at a discussion at St. Johns, no matter what topic, there will be people in the audience that are way smarter than you) as to whether or not these early painters were aware of contemporary trends coming from France, such as Cubism. The face and especially the hands in Portrait of Tom Rowe are painted in an exceptionally realist style, while the black outline on the right side flattens the space. Then there is the matter of the red gestural paint strokes on the upper left and an abstracted landscape painting or scene out a window. These components are an affirmation that Hawthorne was well aware of contemporary approaches to painting, that he was working from a classical tradition while advancing a personal approach.

Next in the lineage is Edwin Walter Dickinson (American, 1891-1978). It was also noted, once again by a St Johns Professor, that the names of these painters, Hawthorne and Dickinson, are quintessentially American.

“Dickinson was a vessel in which perceptual painting was able to remain relevant throughout the Modern Era. He was palatable to the Modernists and his way of painting allowed young artists working during that time, who had a penchant for realism, to have a contemporary painter to look to. Dickinson was someone advancing the discussion of painting and not someone merely recording an idyllic landscape or still life in isolation from Modernism,” Klos explained.
Dickenson also loved El Greco.

Elaine de Kooning wrote, “As a highly accomplished artist with a large body of work behind him, Dickinson went back to this source, El Greco, in the early 1940’s, spending long months at the Metropolitan copying the The View of Toledo- a passionate investigation that yielded a taut, fresh commentary on that sublime painting. Dickinson could aptly join Willem de Kooning in a sly self-appraisal: The more I’m influenced, the more original I get.”

 

An Anniversary by Dickinson 1920-1921

An Anniversary by Dickinson 1920-1921

 

An Anniversary is very obvious in its relation to el Greco’s elongation of figures. The flattening of space is a nod towards cubist renditions of three-dimensional space and a play between interior and exterior. The painting also acknowledges classical Dutch iconographic still life elements.

The following generation is Lennart Anderson (Dickinson’s student) who taught Eve Mansdorf, Tim Kennedy, and many other painters included in this exhibition. Anderson was an extremely fastidious painter, working for ten years on three or four portraits. He obsessed over the arrangement of the elements in his composition.

 

Ruben Eshkanian by Lennart Anderson 1956-57

Ruben Eshkanian by Lennart Anderson 1956-57

 

I have a personal connection to his portrait of Ruben Eshkanian, who was my teacher and mentor extraordinaire in the Fiber Department at Philadelphia College of Art (University of the Arts). I now know why Anderson worked on individual pieces for so long and I have an image of my esteemed teacher’s younger days. They must have been friends at Cranbrook.

Anderson was so concerned with the composition of this painting that he unstretched the canvas to expose another half inch on the left side and then stretched the canvas onto a panel. The crease remains on this painting with a grey palette and subtle tonality. When I looked closely at the frame, its chipped and fragmented gilding reminded me of my textile history classes with Eshkanian: Coptic and Peruvian textile fragments, are beautiful because of their fragmented state in the same way that we appreciate Roman and Greek sculptures. Just as Klos was inspired by Anderson, I was inspired and mentored by Eshkanian and could not have been more excited to find his likeness on the wall of the Mitchell Gallery. He taught us aesthetics and a very strong sense of design and I don’t know how he did it.

 

Anna, Matt and Ruben Eshkanian

Anna, Matt and Ruben Eshkanian

 

I was even reminded of classes with Ruben when Klos was describing an exquisite tiny patch of blue grey paint on the painting The Convalescent (1910-1920) next to his portrait. This almost indecipherable touch of paint is the work of Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939) representing the Slade School.

 

The Convalescent by Gwen John 1923-24

The Convalescent by Gwen John 1923-24

 

Subtle tonality or a low contrast palette is a unifying element for many of the painters in this exhibition, especially of the later generations. I was familiar with Fairfield Porter and his recognizable use of a limited palette, but had not seen the work of many other artists working with a similar palette, such as Neil Riley’s Late Winter Aspen.

 

Farmhouse, Great Spruce Head Island, 1954 Fairfield Porter

Farmhouse, Great Spruce Head Island, 1954 by Fairfield Porter

Late Winter Aspen by Neil Riley 2009

Late Winter Aspen by Neil Riley 2009

 

Another recurring theme in this exhibit is the bending of space; multiple points of perspective are an obvious point of interest in works by Rackstraw Downes and Gideon Bok. In one piece, Bok painted a room from two vantage points, combined with the interlocking of each beam, creating a faux and distorted panorama. This painting is on two canvases and begs the question: did he decide to do this from the outset or realize while working that more space was needed?

 

King of Nails by Gideon Bok 2006-2010

King of Nails by Gideon Bok 2006-2010

 

Downes’ painting show us a bird’s eye view of the New York skyline and the multi-faceted, or four-point perspective, that is more realistic than the eye can see because it reminds us of the curve of the earth and that nothing is truly flat. This is apparent in the bending of all the horizontal and vertical lines outside of the crosshairs of viewpoint leaning toward the vertical and horizontal axis, and in a greater slant, as objects move further away from the viewpoint.

 

Bird’s Eye View of the New York Convention Center Under Construction 1982 by Rackstraw Downes

Bird’s Eye View of the New York Convention Center Under Construction 1982 by Rackstraw Downes

 

I must mention Mark Karnes painting “Dining Room and Living Room” 2009-2012, first of all because it is a great painting that captures light and a time of day that we don’t see often and because of his local fame. Karnes is a long time, revered painting instructor at MICA. The palette is low contrast, with a lot of grey. My friend said of this work “he must have made his wife crazy, his easel was set up in the hallway for years.”

 

detail of Dining Room and Living Room 2006 by Mark Karnes

detail of Dining Room and Living Room 2006 by Mark Karnes

 

There are more influences, prodigies, and successive generations included in this exhibition, but too many to mention here. I did not even tell you about the application of paint and the use of premier coup, another topic worth exploring. I urge you to come and see this group of paintings, so carefully, lovingly curated by Matt Klos. His enthusiasm is infectious and it is clear how much he honors this legacy.

You can learn more at the Curator’s Talk on Tuesday, February 17, 5:30 and at an Artist’s Panel Discussion on Sunday, February 22, 3:00, where many of the living artists will participate.
Additionally, there is a sister exhibition currently at the Cade Art Center, Anne Arundel Community College, titled “Subject and Subjectivity.”

 

Backyard by Eve Mansdorf

Backyard by Eve Mansdorf

Toast 2007 by Tim Kennedy

Toast 2007 by Tim Kennedy

A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters at Mitchell Gallery, St John’s College, Annapolis January 15 – March 1, 2015. This exhibition was curated by Matthew Klos.

Related Programs and Additional Info:

February 17 Curator’s Talk. Curator Matt Klos will give a gallery talk on the “American Perceptual Painters” exhibition at 5:30 p.m. Limited seating. Please call 410-626-2556 for reservations.

February 22 Artists Panel Discussion. Select “American Perceptual Painters” artists and curator Matt Klos will discuss the exhibition at 3 p.m.