By Joan Baum
There’s nothing academic about the “academy,” the exhibit that for the last couple of years has been the season opener at Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor.
But in using a word which resonates as a centuries-old art training institute or masters society dedicated to realistic painting with certain ideas about color, composition, subject matter and technique, gallery owner Romany Kramoris not only signals her commitment to the arts scene — her gallery a salon where painters can be exhibited and critiqued — she also playfully suggests that realistic artists need not adhere to formal principles of classical art in order to differentiate themselves from the reigning culture of abstraction.
For many visitors to the Hamptons, the East End is still Jackson Pollock/Willem de Kooning country, and many local artists who favor landscape painting have a hard sell, despite art alliances that give them greater visibility, if not also a feeling that as realistic painters they are on common ground; local common ground — taking inspiration from the land and water and skies around them.
Ground notwithstanding, it should be noted that all the participants in the Kramoris “academy” show, which opens this weekend, studied at some point on the roof of the Golden Eagle with a local artist who taught classes and led group critiques. That “academy” continues.
Although their bios indicate some formal training, the purpose of the “academy” artists is not to revive historical traditions or faithfully mimic traditional models, but to represent what they see en plein air and to learn from like-minded colleagues.
In choosing for the first show of the season regional painters who mostly explore the local landscape with varying degrees of impressionistic realism, Kramoris is paying homage to community — the East End community and its community of realistic artists. And not just from her hometown, she is quick to add, though two of the four she is exhibiting — Joan Tripp and Richard Udice — live in Sag Harbor. Pingree Louchheim resides in Sagaponack and Thomas Condon in East Hampton.
Condon, whose “Amagansett Barns” shows off his dramatic juxtaposition of shadow and light, manages an Edward Hopper-like effect of sunny emptiness. That red barn with the darkened windows does it, but its slightly off-angled form confirms that impression, with a chimney that slants almost imperceptibly to the right (no straight lines here), as the barn itself almost falls into a corner shadow from an unseen source. The windows, too, reinforce the Hopper look, one set of double panes reflecting ochre-green hills, the others blackened out.
But it’s the composition of the whole that surprises and accounts for a mood the artist describes as “serenity,” “quietude” or “loneliness,” reinforced by the two barn structures on the left, painted in a freer, minimalist manner as loosely realized geometric shapes. As with “4th Street, Hudson, NY” no people are in sight, but the light and dark contrast in 4th Street is starker because of the more restricted palette and exaggerated perspective. The aggressive shadows that fall across the pavement and onto the sunbaked building create mystery and a sense of heat. One might well imagine a Hopper woman sitting alone behind a blackened window.
Louchheim’s still lifes may exemplify academic training, but once her experience in photography and graphic design is known, this background becomes more apparent in the design of her pieces, including her moody landscapes. As “inspiration,” she invokes John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper, the former perhaps for his wide artistic range — portraits, murals, en plein air, taking from him encouragement to be diverse (“Oh, I am very diverse”).
From Hopper, she cites the influence of “linear” composition and contrasts of light and shadow, qualities readily apparent in “Springs,” where objects on a horizontal plane and receding curved road are neatly set off by telephone poles. A painting of the “Hendrickson Barn” (“everyone paints this”) is also in the exhibit along with two pieces from her owl series. “Snowy Owl” and “Long Eared Owl” show realistic command of subject, in a singular way — the creatures are slightly stylized, posed — realism with an admixture of affection and humor.
Tripp’s “Nebulae” might seem at first to be exception to the basic theme of “academy,” but look again: realism prevails in “Orion” and other pieces that depict in rich color the landscape of matter in outer space. The celestial impressionistic swirls are astronomically correct, reflective of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, and also aesthetically satisfying (Tripp is a member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists). Other pieces on exhibit — urban and rural scenes — evidence an artist whose sensibilities also lie closer to home.
Tripp points out that both her nebulae and city scapes, for example, evince a similar love of color and focus that determine her blocking of space on canvas and wood. She, too, references Hopper, his influence perhaps detected in “High Line.” An instructive comparison might be to set side by side her depiction of this elevated public park on the West Side, and photos she first took of the old rail yard, to see how she teases out a sense of wonder and colorful contrasts, juxtaposing in the oil painting “old and new buildings” that seem to lean in toward each other with centripetal force. A recent piece, “Sandy’s Warning,” also takes its origin from a photo. It was of the beach in Bridgehampton, and it might be interesting to compare its mood with motion in the nebulae.
Udice, whose “Sag Harbor Pond,” “East Hampton Shadows” and “Cat Tails” suggest he may have the most impressionistic brushstrokes of the “academy” group, says his signature touches include a differentiating technique and style.
He loves to paint marshes and fields seen through blades of sun-lit grass, rendering distant skies, trees and hills in aerial perspective. Blues and greens predominate and highlight the individual grasses speckled with light. But there’s more than what first meets the eye to account for the tone of his work.
He begins every painting, he says, the same way — with “a ground of terra cotta, a red-rust hue” that becomes the first of typically three layers of pigment and never gets erased from the canvas, even from the smoothly painted pale background sky. The effect is that the blues and greens in his landscapes pulse subtly with that ground color, creating a “warmth” that “brings all the parts of the painting together.” He works fast, sure of his brushstrokes, generating a sense of “spontaneity” and movement. “You can feel a gentle breeze” playing through the darkened trees. Hopper again?
Each “academy” artist was asked to submit four paintings. Although all were asked what they most wanted viewers to think, feel or say about their pictures, it’s hard to compete with Louchheim’s answer: “I’ll buy it.”
The “academy” runs from March 28 to April 25 (there will be a reception on Saturday March 30, from 4 to 6 pm). The Romany Kramoris Gallery is located at 41 Main Street. Call 725-2499 for information.