“Serenity” is the word that springs to mind when viewing Ben Colbert’s “linear landscapes” at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery in Princeton. The artist’s one man show, “Beyond the Horizons II: Landscapes, Watercolors, and Drawings,” features 20 works, some recent, some from earlier years. Almost all are large, many 36 x 48 inches.
In Mr. Colbert’s canvases, bands of color convey land, water, and sky. The artist demonstrates a poet’s appreciation for white space. Mr. Colbert uses unpainted areas of canvas to draw attention to the painted areas. While there are familiar features of the traditional landscape here, these paintings can be seen as expansive images of a vast, unpeopled, and elemental world.
The artist’s minimalist style draws upon the viewer’s own understanding and personal experiences to evoke mountain vistas and sweeping horizons. Depending on your point of view, you might as easily see a half-remembered Scottish loch framed by low mountains as a moonlit vista in Montana. By leaving a portion of the canvas surface unpainted, Mr. Colbert engages viewers in an active relationship with the artist’s own creativity.
His delineated colored bands also convey a variety of atmospheres and moods as made clear by titles such as Hudson River View, Nordic Sun, Last Night, and Violet Glow/Golden Pond. The latter is a highlight of the exhibition but it is not for sale. Its rich purples and browns belong to the artist’s patrons Thomas J. and Pamela H. Espenshade.
When Mr. Colbert was invited to exhibit at the Erdman Gallery a year ago, he thought this would be a perfect opportunity to thank his many Princeton patrons as well as to exhibit work that hadn’t been shown before. Many of the images here, including several watercolor and ink drawings and charcoal sketches, are in private hands.
“The themes derive from my Southern roots, my travels, and real or imagined environmental experiences,” said the artist in a phone interview Monday. His goal, he explained,”is to capture the character and mood of a particular natural setting while focusing on elements that make it personally unique.” His Bayou Morning with its warm tones came out of a family trip to New Orleans.
“I’ve been working on this theme ever since I was an MFA student at the University of Georgia. I had to choose between a career in art or to take up an opportunity to work in educational administration. I chose the latter,” he said.
For almost three decades, Mr. Colbert worked as a program administrator for Educational Testing Service (ETS) until he retired in 2000. “I had a good career and it was important for me to raise and provide for my family but it is a joy to return to my original goal. I had some initial success as a painter back in the day and now I have a studio in downtown Trenton where I can devote time to large canvases that can’t be completed on the kitchen table or in the basement,” he said.
Mr. Colbert grew up in Savannah in the southeastern part of Georgia. Traveling to the northern part of the state for his studies he was captivated by distant horizons. The sight was a motivating factor in his artwork, as was Georgia’s red clay and mountain ranges. “I started out very minimalist but over time my work has grown to include landscape features that add atmosphere such as moonlight or early morning fog. My landscapes are abstractions, series of studies of space.” One example is his massive 48 x 52 inch #473 from his Land Series, an early work in cool colors. More recently the artist has been visiting the Hudson River Valley and observing the landscapes that inspired the School that was an influence on him when he was a student.
As for working method, Mr. Colbert said that a painting might take him anywhere from a week to several months. He frequently puts work aside and returns to it later and he experiments a great deal after first creating sketches. Originally he simply numbered his work but more recently he’s been adding titles. He doesn’t intend his paintings to be framed. “I paint beyond the edges and I leave white space to focus the viewer’s attention on the particular part of the landscape that I am interested in. Often the white space is in the middle of the canvas, sometimes at the top or the bottom, to remind the viewer that they are seeing only a part of a landscape. I don’t intellectualize that much,” he said.
Asked why he thought people were drawn to his work, Mr. Colbert shared this insight: “They bring their own personal experiences to them and I think that they are attracted by simplicity. Although my work is contemporary and abstract, it is not confusing as abstract art can tend to be.” The artist describes himself as having a love for discipline. From time to time he attends life drawing classes at Mercer County Community College.
He has a bachelor’s degree in education from Savannah State College and a master’s in fine arts, drawing, and painting from the University of Georgia.
In addition to one man shows at Emory University, the University of South Florida, and at Atlanta’s Image South Gallery, his work has been shown locally at the Trenton Makes Studio and in the Gallery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church. He has participated in group shows at Mercer County Artists, Ellerslie, The Johnson Education Center, Phillips Mill, and the Prince Street Gallery in New York. Earlier this year, his work was part of the Arts Council of Princeton’s “Structure and Flow: An Exploration of Contrasts in Abstraction.”
Benjamin Colbert’s “Beyond the Horizons 2: Landscapes, Watercolors, and Drawings” will be on view in the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Center Art Gallery, 20 Library Place, through October 30. Admission is free. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information contact the Erdman Center at email@example.com or call (609) 497.7990.