(Images available online at www.sherryleedy.com)
What do you see in a photograph? What do you notice first in a painting? The easy answer—an image, or if the work is abstract, an efflorescence of colors—is not wholly accurate.
A painting may gleam with oil on canvas; but as you look at the scene, whether figurative or abstract, you simultaneously take in the effect of the materials—whether the paint has been smoothed on or galumphed on heavily, built up like van Gogh did—as well as the artist’s touch: John Singer Sargent’s refined hand allowed for the daubs of paint to become part of the scene. A photograph may seem more straightforward; yet from its inception in eighteenth century French photography has been all about exposing technique and framing the artist’s imagination.
The recent combined painting / photography exhibition, “Jeff Aeling: Looking West” and “Carl Corey: Habitat,” at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art settles one question as it brings up another. The two artists are quite different in approach and aesthetic.
Corey, born in Chicago in 1954, is the recipient of numerous advertising commissions but also pursues his own line of inquiry with a camera and a wandering eye for big splashy compositions.
Aeling, of the same generation and a native of the area who has shied away from ad accounts and big cities in pursuit of a solitudinarian’s peaceful palette, would appear to be Corey’s antithesis. What they share, however—a way with making the viewer reconsider what is there before him—matters more than how they push off from each other.
Corey’s ten large photographs of different American habitats, from a bizarre home bar with barstools to an abandoned house to a weathered grain elevator, gravitate to color first. Each photograph commands a color (inky black for an eerie highway scene in Iowa with overhead lamps twinkling; baroque red for a Milwaukee nightclub’s tables; lime green of the trees growing over a house’s small front porch). The hypnotic effect, though it recalls David Lynch’s deeply color-saturated dream-movies as well as Joel Sternfield and Robert Polidori’s oversize exquisite intensity, works well in this small place where the pictures have been placed opposite one another, like color samples.
Richly hued photography occupies a prominent niche right now; it satisfies our 24/7 culture overkill’s appetite for larger-than-life emotions, the way wines are often described as rich and bursting, or big-budget movies ( i.e., “Avatar”) feel the need to overwhelm the senses. If Corey is part of that group, his subjects, empty of people or anything extraneous (life, perhaps?), drain the livingness out of the big colors. An earlier series, “Holiday Shores” (2000), brought out the sadness inherent in carnivals out of season: the same verisimilitude of colors suddenly feels cold rather than hot, the brightly painted rides no longer extravaganzas but extravagantly vacant. If one were to venture that with a minimum of copywriting added as captions to these images the effect would turn from sad to glad, it simply reflects the versatility of photography—it is all in the viewer’s response.
Jeff Aeling’s meticulous landscapes, too, offer both satisfaction and an existential sadness. His paintings are built on photographs taken on travels, in which any non-Nature effect is edited out in the studio. His landscapes, roughly twenty pieces from the past several years (with the bulk from this year by the quickly working artist), survey the off-road America of lakes, plains, tallgrasses and towering cloud formations; the mise-en-scene registers from Dodge City to Junction City, Denver to the Oklahoma Panhandle: the link is the painter’s eye for giving Nature its due.
Landscape painting has a long history on both sides of the Atlantic, from the German Caspar David Friedrich; to Turner and Constable, those virtuosic repositories of the British tradition; onto Bierstadt and Winslow Homer representing the majesty and the anonymity of unspoiled American vistas. Aeling, well aware of his tail end to tradition (there are few despoiled areas left to discover, much less left to turn into art), works at his craft; the viewer may be reminded of previous painters—which is, after all, a suitable subject for art—but after noticing Aeling’s technique, as in the 3-D “Avatar” the scene all around comes into focus. His sunsets billow forth in “Passing Thunderstorm” (2008) and in “South of Denver, CO” (2009), and in the voluptuous “East of Denver” (2009) three-quarters of the canvas is given over to a cloud breaking overhead like some Harry Potter wraith. We have seen such images in the photographs of Ansel Adams and the like, where they are standard ooh-ah God-in-Nature scenes. Here, knowing they are not intended to cast a nineteenth-century romanticism nor a modernist irony (something that photography is well cued to perform), Aeling’s landscapes are what they are.
Presumably, we have become bored, impatient, with the art of seeing: we expect our computer to turn on instantly, to receive our texts without delay, like our microwaved food and our iPhone news apps. Photography, with its heightened ability and agility to move us immediately elsewhere, has burgeoned with curators and collectors, while painting, that gradual medium (think of the plein air craftsmen like Monet), must seem turtle-slow.
It is that distinct pleasure which accompanies Jeff Aeling’s landscapes: they must be seen, slowly, so that the instantaneous photographic acknowledgement of what is seen is replayed, this time uniquely by each viewer, downloading his own memory files if he has been to the same area or opening a new file to compare with similar pleasurable images.
As photography moves further away from itself, painting continues to take up the slack bringing the artist and the viewer into the same gaze, for different reasons.