Wed, 24 Jun 2009 12:35:43
By Bill van Siclen, Providence Journal
There was a time, just over a century ago, when Rhode Islanders couldn’t spend a day at the beach without bumping into a famous artist. There was Martin Johnson Heade, who came to paint the thunderstorms rumbling across Narragansett Bay. There was William Trost Richards, who painted the surf breaking near his home on Jamestown Island. And there were artists like John La Farge and John Frederick Kensett, who explored the rocky cliffs and coasts of Portsmouth and Middletown.
Nowadays, of course, artists still visit these storied locations. Still, it’s been a while since cutting-edge painters — and Heade, Richards and La Farge were all cutting-edge by the standards of their day — spent some quality time painting and sketching along the Rhode Island coast.
Sue McNally, a Newport artist whose work is the focus of a wonderful solo exhibit at the Newport Art Museum, aims to change all that. A longtime fan of painters such as Heade and La Farge, McNally decided to test her own (considerable) painting skills against her 19th-century heroes.
To do that, she revisited many of the locations favored by 19th-century artists, including landmarks such as Hanging Rock and Paradise Valley. She also consulted previous works by the likes of Kensett and La Farge, as well as more obscure talents such as David Maitland Armstrong and George Quincy Thorndike. (For the record, Thorndike was a Boston-born artist who settled in Newport around 1850; Armstrong, meanwhile, was a New Yorker who spent most of his career in Italy and France.)
At the same time, McNally’s goal wasn’t simply to mimic what other artists had done. Instead, the idea was at once more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding: to channel the spirit of 19th-century painting while still maintaining her identity as a 21st-century artist.
About a dozen examples of this past-meets-present approach are now on display in NAM’s main Griswold House gallery. In many cases, the specific locations and topographical features that inspired the paintings will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time wandering along the Rhode Island coast, especially Aquidneck Island. But McNally’s style, which combines bright, neon-hued colors with a playful Pop Art sensibility, also forces us to see these familiar landmarks through new eyes.
A good example is Hanging Rock Sunset, a painting that turns the famous rock formation into something akin to a psychedelic rock poster. In contrast to the muted greens and browns favored by 19th-century artists, McNally uses an array of more vibrant colors. Lush pinks and maroons, for example, dominate the cattail-filled marsh that sits at the rock’s base. The craggy profile of Hanging Rock itself is rendered in darker shades of blue and black, highlighted with streaks of electric blue and green.
As for the sky, its mix of lime greens and pale salmon pinks might seem better suited to the Caribbean than the North Atlantic. Still, the whole thing works. Granted , this may not be the Hanging Rock you’re used to seeing in old paintings and postcards. But who’s to say that McNally’s version, with its simple, stylized shapes and candy-hued palette, isn’t just as true to the spirit of the place?
Other paintings take similar liberties.
The phrase “fall color,” for example, takes on a whole new meaning in Valley Floor, one of several large multi-part paintings in the exhibit. Though the scene looks familiar — almost anyone who’s taken a walk in the New England woods has seen similar tangles of trees, vines and shrubs — McNallay’s colors, which range from bright pinks and purples for the trees to luscious reds, oranges and pinks for the ground, transform it into something dream-like and otherworldly. If Paul Gauguin had decided to skip Tahiti and settle on Aquidneck Island, he might have done something like this.
Perhaps the show’s most striking work is a night view of Middletown’s Sachuest Point. Titled Paradise at Night, it has an almost childlike simplicity. The waves rolling in toward Sachuest’s horseshoe-shaped beach, for example, are rendered — in classic paint-by-numbers fashion — as a series of flat bands of color. The moonlit clouds, meanwhile, are little more than glowing splotches of white.
Yet the painting itself is far from simple. Indeed, Paradise at Night has some of the spooky beauty of another nighttime scene: Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night.
That’s not to say McNally can do no wrong. While some of her subjects lend themselves to easy stylization — notably the waves in Paradise at Night and the playful polka-dot-shaped clouds that hover over many of her scenes — others are less successful. That’s especially true of some of the smaller paintings, where her efforts to depict a snowy field in mid-blizzard (Feb. 3:40 P.M.) or a spring meadow in full blossom (Spring) look more like sketches than finished paintings.
Still, these are minor complaints.
In these new paintings, McNally manages to pay her respects to some of the giants of American art without submerging her own artistic identity. It’s a brave, possibly even foolhardy mission, but McNally makes it work. No doubt fellow painter-surf bums like Heade and La Farge (several of whose works appear in postcard-size miniatures alongside McNally’s canvases) would approve.
While there’s plenty to see at the Newport Art Museum these days — in addition to the Sue McNally show, the museum is also exhibiting works from the collection of former Fleet Bank CEO Terry Murray and his wife — don’t miss François Poisson’s small one-man show near the museum’s front desk. A RISD-trained artist who now lives in Connecticut, Poisson makes toy-like sculptures and mixed media pieces that walk the line between childhood innocence and adult experience.
It’s a duality that’s summed up in Poisson’s favorite image — a cartoon bunny with puffy cheeks and an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-ish smile. When you first meet him, it’s easy to take this quirky little creature as a benign, even slightly comical presence. But the longer you look — and look you must, since the bunny appears on almost everything Poisson does, from a series of portraits to a collection of wooden cars and trucks — the stranger the bunny gets.
By the time you’re done, you may never look at Peter Rabbit or Bugs Bunny the same way again.
“Picture Paradise: Paintings by Sue McNally” runs through Aug. 12 and “François Poisson: The Bunny Car and Friends” through Aug. 23 at the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 10-5 and Sun. noon-5. Admission: adults $10, seniors $8, students and military with I.D. $6, five and under free. Contact: (401) 848-8200 or www.newportartmuseum.org.
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