Emilio Sanchez reveals beauty in unremarkable landscapes

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Untitled, Bronx Multi-Colored Storefront (Image courtesy the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia)

Sunlight does peculiar things in the city. It overwhelms surfaces in ways it can’t when there’s more organic matter around to soak up the glare or scatter it into chaotic shadows. The portfolio of Cuban-American painter Emilio Sanchez contains a broad range of still life and natural scenes, but a collection featuring only his depictions of the built environment makes for a rewarding summer show at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

The bulk of the selections are set in New York, such as an untitled painting of two buildings cast in the partial shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. As with the other works, its simple composition is deceptive. Glaring yellow from a ground level storage building, and the radiant brick of an equally bland mid-rise adjacent to it, reflects the heat of a quiet afternoon on an empty street. The shadow of the bridge at unlikely angles against the walls makes the light stand out further. The oil painting also considers the odd contrast between the emblematic and the ordinary pressed close together in the urban landscape.

Sanchez has a photographer’s eye for finding beautiful angles on unremarkable things. Another untitled work known as “New York Skies” looks over the rooflines and water towers of sparsely detailed skyscrapers. It too explores forgotten shadows and discarded views. The space is devoid of people and so scoured by sunlight you can almost feel the roofing tar melt beneath your feet.

In a 1967 interview with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Sanchez described his similarly composed renderings of houses in the Caribbean: “What is most interesting is how the sunlight will bring up contrast, because early in the day or late in the day, or for that matter right in the middle of the day when the sun is at its brightest, the sun can wash the color out completely, whitening it all out. So just a little earlier or a little later I get this wonderful rich shading, especially with the yellow, that seems to be the best color. And when there’s no sun at all, it can be so drab. Sometimes I have to wait for the sunny day to get the effect I want.”

He sought to capture similar moments by driving around the Bronx in the late 1980s, setting up in front of colorful service stations or bodegas that caught his eye. In so doing, he seemed to bring the same magic to buildings that Wayne Thiebaud could bring to pastry. Their warm pastel colors and simple compositions, somehow made the subjects of their work both true-to-life, and slightly surreal at the same time.

Emilio Sanchez, "Cityscapes"
Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
Through August 12

“New York On a Sunny Day,” a ground upward view of a nondescript gray office tower, provides an example of that abstract effect created from a largely accurate lithograph. Two shorter wings of the structure extend at right angles from its base. Intense sunlight falls onto one side of walls while the others are nearly black in shadow. The angles are reproduced exactly how they should look, yet they lend the building a towering presence that seems a galaxy apart from the anonymous people who work inside.

In the same way, Sanchez wanders a space between stark realism and colorful abstraction in the collection’s only images from outside New York. Three explore the day’s light falling on a Moroccan building in watercolor, in oil and in a combination of the two. Each tries to coax out the secret tones and brilliant reflections of a place unremarkable during any other time of day. It’s a fitting exhibit for an idyll summer afternoon.

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