Landscape painting always reminds us that the world is not one way. It can be as verdant, intimate, fresh, clear of eye, and pure of heart as an Ephraim Rubenstein painting promises it to be; or as arid, vast, delusive, psychologically strewn and nonetheless exquisite, like an Erling Sjovold painting. Both painters, featured in Cudahy's current exhibition, give us good old realism: real places in real time. But for each painter it is an intra-realism, illuminated with or by the ambient light of his own personal perspective and religion.
Both artists are affiliated with the University of Richmond as past and present professors of art. Rubenstein taught painting there from 1987 to 1998, when he and his family moved to Maryland. Sjovold was selected to replace Rubenstein at UR.
Rubenstein believes in saturated color when he is outside painting the places near his home; in the high refractory opportunism of unabashed sunlight which has been further accented by places that fall into deep shadow. He loves to use undestroyed, unpollinated color. "Woodley: Summer Morning" is all physical sensation with its green freshly cut grass, cool dappled shadow and whitewashed house that almost smells of bleached sheets and small wooden swings. His "Railroad Bridge, Kanawha Canal" may carry us away from our visit to a blessed bucolic scene to encounter some urban underpinnings, but it doesn't abandon its pledge of shiny bright findings; or of cared-for things, all stated in richly applied, fragrant oil paint.
Rubenstein is an optimist and a romantic. His remarkable self-portrait, found on Cudahy's mezzanine, glares in uncharacteristic fury. It depicts an artistic contempt that Rubenstein would not likely direct towards his deeply felt subject matter, but towards trespassers and skeptics... or perhaps at portrait-sitters in pursuit of unavailable flattery.
Sjovold, on the other hand, is not so much the optimist. "Compassionate pragmatist" is probably how his horoscope reads. Sjovold's landscapes have an illusive, surreal bent to them that, regardless, passes easily for truth. "Alluvium's" pile of chintz mattresses remotely deaccessioned in the desert and reiterating the mountain range behind, is not so totally surreal, given our tendency to drop junk we are done with, and the increasing ability of our SUVs to carry it farther off-road. But it is surreal the way Sjovold arranges the mattresses, how essentially pretty they are, pastel and unstained. Litter hardly ever looks this good. So while Sjovold may not be an optimist, he is still a romantic. This tongue-in-cheek romance floats across "Bouquet," which also depicts refuse as an alluring blush of color in a stark vista, and across "Gland," another tragicomic ruse on the landscape.
"Gland," possessing the best title in the show, is a do-it-yourself-type tube fountain that pumps its recirculating benediction into a little dirt-dauber contrivance of a pond. It's sort of an embarrassment for all of us who happen to have one of these adjustments to nature, but on the other hand, Sjovold considerately allows it a certain endearing quality and stamina, a small valiancy of life in the insistent pink-gray drought. Sjovold is apparently touring the West for these landscapes, so they are in particular contrast to Rubenstein's scenes. But even when Sjovold is back East where rainfall is a promiscuous vascular transaction, he still puts pink in his greens and blues; hazes his sky; demurs his secrets.
My favorite of Rubenstein's paintings is "Studio Interior, Winter." The site is his old studio at the University of Richmond. The model's couch is still empty, waiting. The artist's work area is prepared: modest, sturdy wooden chair, a sketch in progress on the easel, various technical tools at arm's length. Above, in the vast height of an industrial clerestory, huge insulated heating ducts intersect each other with a kind of regimental fervor. Way beneath, plugged into a handy floor socket, a small space heater confidently glows, gallantly warming the immediate area, the surface the model will pose on, and eventually the model.
In spite of the exacting perspective of the interior, everything about the painting feels equally nearby and far away, out of body. Somehow, the box heater reminds me of Rubenstein himself, a more representative self-portrait perhaps then the one on display upstairs. Placed on the same horizontal plane as his chair, it seems to stand in for the humane manner of this artist's method, for his benevolent, generous style and philosophy. His own actual departure from that room breathes a private sadness in the waiting space.
On a lighter note, my favorite of Sjovold's work is a funny, wonderful piece titled "Wandering Dog." All contemplative musings temporarily put aside, it's really a New Yorker-cover delight of a painting with a curious, busy little Westie at large in his yard. I can't even remember the other details of the piece; I was so sucked in by the dog. Art can be funny that
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