November 23, 2011

Do you like this?

The lower gallery at the Hunter Museum has been re-hung with many remarkable works from the permanent collection, including a fascinating group of American Impressionists. This installation will run for a long time, so folks will have an opportunity to revisit this show. There are also more pieces than I can discuss within this space, so please be aware that masterpieces await outside of these margins.

Hunter Director Daniel Stetson expresses his gratitude to the Benwood Foundation for its assistance with regard to this assemblage. Stetson remarks on how well American art shows us how American history has progressed during the past century. Stetson also emphasizes a particular relevance to the Chattanooga community in the exhibition of a dozen works by George Cress, the artist from whom the UTC Fine Arts Gallery takes its name. Viewers will now have the chance to examine Cress’s stylistic variations.

Clearly, with Cress’s work, the relationship of paint to his subjects and to light has great significance, and Cress will take this fascination with paint into the realm of abstraction. One of the most interesting aspects of this entire installation shows how artists continually seek to find new ways to use paint to render their subjects of choice.

Looking back to the 19th century, William Michael Harnett’s “Still Life With Ginger Jar” (1876, oil on canvas) renders the numerous objects within its compositional field with a natural accuracy assured and impressive. Harnett uses a fine gold to show detail on a pineapple and gilt edging on the pages of a book, presumably to show a lighting highlight, granting this piece a dynamism of light, a particular moment that enlivens the stasis of the other objects. Still, this gilt also shows a painterly “effect” that enhances the whole work, not likely to be considered as “impressionistic”, but nonetheless, inspired.

Mary Cassat’s “Baby Bill in His Cap and Shift, Held by His Nurse” (1890, pastel on paper) focuses most of its natural rendering on this child’s face and torso, with other details diminishing in proportion to their distance. The nurse’s face seems half-rendered, and backgrounds are indicated by lines we may now call more expressionistic, and which we find common in today’s galleries.

Other paintings in the Impressionist group emphasize the medium as much as the subject, and strategies of strokes and lines direct our impressions of these works, well beyond recognition of their ostensible subjects. We are often told that Impressionist painters “visioned” their works differently, but I wonder if this primary impulse was not more “medial” than “perceptual”. These artists find a dynamic balance between subjects and the strokes used to render them. They show aesthetic ambitions that don’t just portray “light”, but the air itself. After all, photography had already arisen as a “realist” medium, but the fusion of accurate rendering and awareness of paint’s capabilities creates amazing paintings.

The George Bellows’s pieces “The White Fence” (1920, oil on canvas) and “The Model, Early Study” (1917, lithograph, 8) are in different media, but both show Bellows’s forceful line renderings, even to the extent of impasto oil strokes and the contrast of stark delineation with more fanciful lines in the lithograph.

Childe Hassam’s “French Tea Garden” (1910, oil on canvas) has compositional complexity, and it invites inquiries concerning its central figure, yet her contemplation and serenity, her essential stillness, paradoxically emerges from the leafy, floral renderings. Compare with Everett Shinn’s “Actress in Red Before Mirror” (circa 1910, pastel on paper), where impressionist and realist renderings contribute to compositional complexity, charging the whole with dramatic energy. This actress holds a mirror, checking her hair in the larger mirror, which itself reflects another figure, a woman in a black outfit. All the skills of rendering supports an indefinite narrative, and this piece stands on the threshold of expressionism, because these conditional elements suggest an essence of paint.

The John Sloan etchings “Fifth Avenue Critics” (1905) and “Night Windows” (1910) are so finely detailed, yet motion overcomes stasis, and these pieces have a satirical voice, commenting on both the beauty and vicissitudes of urban life. The artist comments from within his subjects, another expressionist tendency, for the frames seem to show beyond their subjects.

This installation provides a splendid panorama of innovation.

American Impressionists

Hunter Museum of Art, 10 Bluff View

(423) 267-0968.


November 23, 2011

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