Warm welcome: Group show at McGuffey invites colorful observations

Versatility is apparent in Karen Blair’s “Goldenrod,” oil on canvas, currently on exhibit in the Sarah B. Smith Gallery at McGuffey Art Center. Image: Courtesy of the artist Versatility is apparent in Karen Blair’s “Goldenrod,” oil on canvas, currently on exhibit in the Sarah B. Smith Gallery at McGuffey Art Center. Image: Courtesy of the artist

If you’re in need of an instant mood-elevator, I suggest you head straight over to the McGuffey Art Center where dazzling light and vibrant color (and some pretty nifty painting) is on full display at a group show featuring the work of Karen Blair, Jessie Coles, Priscilla Long Whitlock, and Krista Townsend. Still lifes, landscape, animals, and urban scenes are all represented in this appealing show.

In her work, Coles describes a domestic life that is warm, rich and inviting. Just looking at her paintings, I know I’d like to spend time at her house. But above and beyond the pleasing vision her work presents, Coles’ paintings also have potency. “Energy and movement are the real subject of my work,” she says. She develops her paintings over repeated sessions, wherein scale may change, relationships alter, and “unexpected colors knock against each other creating an energy and excitement I never could have predicted.” These works are composites of repeated observations, not frozen moments in time. Coles’ rich impasto reminds me of Wayne Thiebaud and I’m not saying that just because of the cake. Seriously, you almost want to take a spoon and run it along the surface, scooping it up to eat. They’re that yummy.

I love Karen Blair’s riotous flower paintings that seem to explode with vernal energy. In “Poppies and Queen Anne’s Lace” she achieves an interesting, almost cut out effect, as if the flowers had been appliquéd on top of the turquoise background. There’s a more somber woodland creek and an autumnal scene of goldenrods that show Blair’s versatility. Don’t miss the exuberant “Poppies and Garden Hose” hanging around the corner in the McGuffey shop. I almost did. Big, colorful, showy, it’s a picture that captures the sensations of being in a garden buzzing with life: warm sun, moist earth, loamy smells. An admirer of Fairfield Porter, Blair seeks to balance abstraction and realism in the same way, “always asking how little information I can give and still convey the image.”

Almost abstract, Whitlock’s paintings provide ample opportunity for her to show off her dynamic brushwork, which varies from expressive little daubs to dramatic slashes of pigment. “My interest is the challenge of interpreting landscape into painted marks, shapes, and color,” said Whitlock. A plein air painter, she spends time “standing in the field, marsh or woods.” Yet she isn’t dogmatic about recording exactly what she sees, choosing to use a highly keyed palette of pinks, greens, lavenders, and yellows, exaggerating the hues found in nature. Her paintings are certainly pretty, but they also have a heft to them thanks to her audacious application of paint. I particularly liked how Whitlock moves from light to shadow and foreground to distance using color in “Plank Road Field,” and also the lively brushwork in the areas of shadow. Two of her pieces on view, including this one, are triptychs. Breaking up the work into panels objectifies it, further removing it from the realm of traditional landscape painting. The effect is accentuated by Whitlock, who paints the edges of the canvas using a single bright color to provide a visual break between the individual panels. With the exception of Coles, whose works are framed, the other artists also paint the edges of the canvas, in effect, “framing” the work.

Krista Townsend’s paintings range from the very small (6″ x 6″) to the very large (75″ x 36″) and from farm animals to urban scenes. She employs a bold palette with splashes of orange and expanses of hyacinth. An intense, almost bluish light floods her work giving it a freshly scrubbed look as if it had just rained. The effect reminded me a bit of the work of Icelandic American painter, Louisa Matthiasdottir. There’s also a hint of Hopper in these empty streets. (To me, her “Chinatown” seemed like an animated, updated rift on Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning.”) It’s interesting seeing views of Charlottesville and the surrounding countryside, well-recorded fodder of other local artists (Richard Crozier and Edward Thomas, specifically) treated in a completely different way. Townsend works professionally as a medical illustrator, an occupation that demands exacting verisimilitude, so it’s notable that she is able to let go of this in favor of expression. Her training still stands her in good stead in composing her works, and in a painting like the extraordinary prepossessing cat by the steps, amber eyes glinting in the sun. Townsend has perfectly captured feline essence in this charming painting.

All of these women paint from nature, but they’re after something more than just an accurate rendering of reality. It’s “more about the physicality and energy of the paint and less about landscape as ‘scenery’” is how Whitlock puts it. Certainly, they all know how to produce widely appealing work, but these artists also know “from” paint. You get the sense that they revel in their medium. There is joy there with the end result being works that lure you in with their charm and hold your interest with each singular approach.


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