February 29, 2012

UNSUNG HERO: During his residency at the Arts Council of Princeton, studio artist and educator Thaddeus Erdahl created this bust of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. Spader, the Peanut Man.

“I just showed up at Communiversity and said I wanted to help out with something,” said Thaddeus Erdahl recounting his introduction to the Princeton Arts Council (PAC) over a year ago. “So they put me to work making cotton candy, a truly enlightening moment in my life.”

Although Mr. Erdahl, who describes himself as an “independent studio artist and educator,” was “covered from head to toe with sugary webs of pink and blue” by the end of the day, he had also gotten to know Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson and staffers Mark Germond and Maria Evans, among others. A job as a ceramics instructor at PAC soon followed and, encouraged by ceramics manager Kathleen Preziosi, Mr. Erdahl put together a residency application; he then was approved.

The Iowa-born artist’s stint at the Arts Council has been based largely on his interest in using ceramic sculpture and portraiture “for documenting what I see in human nature.” Another important element in his approach to art, he says, is humor; “one of the most attractive qualities of human behavior.

“Some things in life are so serious, you have to laugh at them,” Mr. Erdahl added. “Working with concepts that are personal and sometimes with narcissistic perceptions of the gloomy side of life, humor is my buffer.”

Mr. Erdahl incorporated Princeton into his work at the Arts Council by creating a sculpture of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. “Spader, the Peanut Man,” whom he described as “unsung, but noteworthy.” A June 15, 1929 article in the Daily Princetonian reported that “Spader, the old Negro peanut man” who has “taken on the aspect of a landmark,” would be on hand at the game against Yale that afternoon, “for his peddling license has been renewed.”

“My intention was to express, teach, and preserve the memory of Archibald Seruby,” said. Mr. Erdahl. “Every community, perhaps most especially Princeton, has been influenced by the lives of colorful characters who have yet to be formally recognized. I portrayed not only the outward appearance, but also a more intimate or hidden aspect of his persona. Instead of the traditional, stoic, portrait bust, this sculpture is a humanized, personalized representation of Mr. Seruby, the peanut man.”

In addition to producing art, Mr. Erdahl’s residency included the chance to work with members of the community, and, he reported, “like all good plans,” some “unexpected opportunities” came along.

Several weeks into his residency Ms. Evans, who is the Arts Council of Princeton’s Community Programs Manager, asked Mr. Erdahl to participate in their annual Day of the Dead Exhibition. “I was honored to be asked, so I changed gears for a few weeks to work on several sculptures for the exhibition,” Mr. Erdahl reported. One result was a group ceramic project titled Mariposa. “Together with a mixed age group of teens, tweens, and children we created a wall sculpture consisting of over 100 press-moulded ceramic skulls that, when assembled in a specific grid configuration, created an image of a monarch butterfly,” reported Mr. Erdahl. “I was really proud of the dedication and support that I received from such a young demographic. The children were so excited to know that they were responsible for part of the sculpture.”

Indeed, the whole Arts Council of Princeton experience has been a positive one for Mr. Erdahl. “They are a wonderful group who gave me a sense of place in a new community,” he observed.

At the moment, Mr. Erdahl is at the University of Northern Iowa, filling in for his undergraduate professor, Jo Ann Schnable, who is on sabbatical this semester. After that, he said, he’ll “be heading back to Princeton, picking up where things left off.”

To learn more about the Princeton Arts Council visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

February 22, 2012

“WALLPAPER”: (20” x 24,” egg tempera on panel.) This is one of the most striking of a series of works in Mavis Smith’s “Hidden Realities.” The hypnotic intensity reflects the artist’s account of how she works: “Your mind is open and you go into a trance and the ideas come in.” The exhibit will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown through May 20.

When you wander into an art show called “Hidden Realities” by an artist you don’t know, free of preconceived notions and critical agendas, you may think that you’re merely passing time until you discover that you and time have parted company. If anything, it’s time that’s passing you, not the other way around, since the first painting you see holds you for maybe three or four minutes, and even then, it’s not easy to walk away. The woman in Mavis Smith’s subtly surreal painting, Solace, is looking at you as if you and she have a history. She’s got your number; she’s looking right through you.

It’s the other way around in Night Gown. By all rights a beauty in a silky, darkly lustrous dream of fabric should be seductive, not dazed and vulnerable. Far from putting you in your place, she seems to be saying, “Understand me, tell me who I am, tell me where I am.”

By the time you come to Small Sacrifices, whether you know it yet or not, you’re in Mavis Smith’s movie. While you may feel no particular compulsion to figure out what the “sacrifices” are, you can’t help wondering what it is this wise, wounded, endearing girl has given up. Like the subject in Night Gown, she seems lost, new to the world. Before you start feeling protective, you remind yourself that she’s a work of art like the others, “egg tempera on panel,” and the artist’s love for her is protection enough. She’s safe in there forever, as timeless as the elaborately detailed storybook tapestry passing as wallpaper behind her.

Sensuous Surfaces

In Mavis Smith’s edgy mystery movie disguised as an art exhibit, which will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum through May 20, a great deal of seriously expressive power is communicated through gaze and gesture, flesh tones, fabrics, garments (or their absence), and the sensuous lustre of the surface created by the artist’s meticulous employment of the medium she discusses in the catalogue under “The Fine Art of Tempera Painting”:

“It may seem strange to make pictures by mixing pigments into egg yolks, but people have been doing it for a long, long time …. The process can be tedious — or mesmerizing — depending on how you look at it. Once the pose is sketched in, I start building up layers of paint. Alternating between dry feathery brush strokes and sheer washes of color — back and forth, back and forth. This stage can take days or even weeks, but that’s when the direction and mood of the painting gradually reveal themselves.”

Smith describes being “in a very relaxed, almost hypnotic state” as mood and direction come together. In another statement, she says that the “build up” can require “hundreds of layers,” before it achieves “a luminous, ethereal quality.”

The terms Smith uses in describing herself at work are reflected in the hypnotic mood she creates, although “ethereal” doesn’t really fit the solid, smoothly formed physical presence of the seated woman in Solace, yes, it’s her again, I came back for another look, trying to figure out which movie actress she reminds me of; perhaps an older, wiser, earthier Scarlett Johansson.

It’s no accident that thoughts of movies keep surfacing, what with the Academy Awards looming next Sunday. More to the point, Smith has said that she’s “probably as much influenced by film directors” as by other painters. She likes the way certain older films (think Hitchcock and Kubrick) are shot “with especially tightly cropped frames and from unusual angles, with looming ceilings and odd shadows.” She is equally intrigued by “the idea of the beautiful, pristine surface with the subtle suggestion of a darker side hovering just below” or “around the corner, or in the next frame.” The gallery walls feature quotes from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, which she considers “a perfect example of smooth on the surface suburban life with a dark undercurrent.”

I began feeling the presence of David Lynch long before I came to the posted quote from Wild at Heart (“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” says Laura Dern’s Lula). Having already picked up flashes of Lynch in the tranced-looking females with outsized jaws and equine faces in flatter, broader, closer-to-caricature works like Specks of Dust, Exile, Somnambulist, and The Key, I knew I was in Twin Peaks country when I saw the blonde girl in rust-colored top and worn-shiny jeans stretched out on a bed in Night Pool. I could almost hear the yearning, angst-saturated music of Angelo Badalamenti, a subtle “the-owls-are-not-what-they-seem” tingle running up the back of my neck at the thought of the surreal off-the-wall ABC series that captivated the nation in the first years of the nineties. Somehow Smith has endowed her females with something like the haunted and haunting aura that could make ominous presences of slowly revolving ceiling fans while network audiences obsessed on “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It all began when a plastic sheet was pulled back to reveal Laura’s face, scary beautiful in death, like a drowned sister to Botticelli’s Venus.

Best Picture Nominee

In an email exchange about films and Oscar night, Mavis Smith made special mention of The Descendants. When she pointed out what appealed to her in the Best Picture nominee — “serene on the surface but subtly disturbing around the edges” — she was obviously describing elements of her own work.

“We come into contact with dozens of people on a daily basis, catch their eyes for a brief moment and move on,” Smith observes in the Artist Statement, “never knowing the intricate accumulation of experience that forms their reality. My work is about that moment — hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive.”

A Mavis Smith moment in The Descendants occurs when George Clooney, in the course of tracking down the real estate agent his comatose wife was having an affair with, finds himself standing on a beach, at the water’s edge, conversing with the man’s wife (played by Judy Greer, who could have stepped right out of one of Mavis Smith’s paintings). Since we know that Clooney has been shaken half out of his wits by a trainwreck of converging crises, we’re intensely aware of the forces building up to a moment that for the friendly, unknowing woman is nothing more than a few casual words about her kids and Clooney’s. For Clooney, the meeting is a stunningly significant event, and he makes the audience feel every one of its, to use Smith’s words, “subtly disturbing” possibilities. We know he must be tempted to blow his cover and make her suffer the knowledge that’s tormenting him (misery loves company and vengeance is sweet). What makes Clooney’s performance Oscar-worthy is the way he’s able to communicate his character’s struggle to contain, contend with, and somehow express a storm of conflicting possibilities (something comparable to Smith’s “intricate accumulation”). Here’s a reasonably rational, centered human being doing his best to cope with (for a start) death, love, infidelity, outrage, guilt, property, and fatherhood.

Mavis Smith’s art, like the art of movie acting, is about expressing the virtually inexpressible, those “hidden realities” cited in the exhibit’s title. One of the show’s most haunting images is staring out at you from Wallpaper, which contains, slyly ignored by the title, the most riveting close-up in the exhibit, a Laura Palmeresque face that holds the mixture of “mystery” and “elegance” Smith has identified as one of her goals. “I was interested in the close cropping of the face,” she writes, “and the proximity of the intense, repetitive wallpaper pattern.” To which she adds, “At one time, women were encouraged to ‘blend into the wallpaper’ but in light of today’s social hierarchy, the wallpaper might take over the room.”

Obviously “wallpaper” is a loaded phrase for a female artist dedicated to presenting female mystery, beauty, strength, and presence. Smith recalls meeting a “very tiny older couple” at the exhibit’s opening reception. “At one point the woman pulled me aside and whispered ‘your paintings give a woman confidence’” — which made the director of “Hidden Realities,” the movie, “feel as good as anything I have ever heard about my work.”

If you can’t get to the museum, be sure to take a tour of Mavis Smith’s work at http://mavissmithart.com/Exhibition%20HR%20page.htm.

February 15, 2012

GOTHIC IMAGE: Francis Lathrop’s “Jonathan” (1889), a model for a window in the old Marquand Chapel, which burned in 1920, will be on view in the Princeton Art Museum’s new show, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival.” The model is a gift of the Museum for the Arts of Decoration, Cooper Union, for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York. (Photo by Bruce M. White.)

The Princeton University Art Museum will present “Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” from February 25 through June 24, 2012.

The exhibition of 40 works explores America’s changing attitudes toward the art and architecture of the Middle Ages around the turn of the 20th century. Organized by Johanna G. Seasonwein, the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Academic Programs, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival” investigates the adoption of the Gothic Revival as a style appropriate for American universities, as seen through the lens of Princeton University’s campus and collections.

“Princeton and the Gothic Revival” covers the years between the dedication of the first High Victorian Gothic building on the Princeton campus, Chancellor Green Library, and the completion of the extraordinary University Chapel. The exhibition draws from the Art Museum’s collections and resources of Princeton’s Firestone Library and University Archives, along with those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions, to highlight Princeton University’s role as a major patron of Gothic Revival art and architecture and the role of this style — of England’s “ancient universities” — in shaping the identity of modern-day Princeton.

“Princeton’s campus and collections provide a unique opportunity to explore the transformation of the Gothic Revival into a symbol of the American academy. Princeton moved forward into the 20th century by essentially looking back at the architectural style of Oxford and Cambridge,” said Ms. Seasonwein, a historian of the art of the Middle Ages. “Ultimately, “Princeton and the Gothic Revival” examines how the language of medieval forms was used to articulate a new model of American higher education, both in campus design and in the classroom.”

“Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” is organized into four sections. The first, the Gothic Revival prior to 1870, introduces the Gothic Revival movement in America and its English roots. Wealthy Americans visiting medieval sites or modern “Gothick” estates such as Fonthill Abbey often were inspired to design their own Gothic Revival homes that were a mix of the authentic and the fantastic. This section features a design for a stained-glass window for Fonthill Abbey by painter Benjamin West and a design for the first American Gothic Revival estate by noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The Gothic Revival in the Gilded Age presents the first High Victorian Gothic buildings constructed on the Princeton campus with a mix of medieval and other styles that reflected the donors’ interest in the Aesthetic movement, and its eclectic approach to design. This section highlights the former Marquand Chapel, designed by renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. The chapel was later lost to fire. Featured works include Hunt’s original architectural plans and artist Francis Lathrop’s models for one of the stained-glass windows.

The Middle Ages and the Modern University investigates the connection between architectural style and academic identity and use. This section presents works relating to the first Biological Laboratory and Art Museum buildings, both of which were constructed in the Romanesque Revival style. Also on view are some of the earliest works of medieval art purchased by the Museum (one of the great repositories for medieval art in the United States), including one of the first English medieval alabaster reliefs to enter an American collection.

The final section, The Collegiate Gothic Campus explores, the development of Princeton’s campus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new buildings, which simulated those of Oxford and Cambridge, conferred an instant pedigree on the University and communicated the school’s desired stature to the student body (at that time all male and almost exclusively white and Christian). This section includes images related to many of the Gothic Revival buildings on campus, most notably a set of never-before exhibited watercolors of the original designs for the University Chapel.

“‘Princeton and the Gothic Revival’ continues the Museum’s interest in understanding the ways in which Princeton University’s buildings and its design choices have shaped its identity as one of the world’s great research universities and vice versa, while offering a lens through which we can reconsider one of the 19th century’s most significant design movements,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward.

In conjunction with Princeton and the Gothic Revival, a mobile web application will take the exhibition out of the Museum and onto the campus for visitors. The tour will provide a multimedia exploration of nine campus buildings that are featured in the exhibition and related catalogue. Drawing from the special collections of the Firestone Library and Archives and the Museum Collections, the experience will emphasize existing and historic sites presented in the exhibition, highlighting the recently digitized Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series from the University Archives, as well as historic photographs and audio that features experts from across the campus.

A reception for “Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930” begins at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 26 at the Art Museum. A concert by the Princeton Singers follows in the University Chapel at 7 p.m.. The group will take a look back at music of the Victorian age, from sacred to sentimental, and at the British traditions that took root in America. Tim Harrell, guest organist, will play the Chapel’s 1928 Aeolian-Skinner organ. Both events are free and open to the public.

Admission to the Princeton University Art Museum is free. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Free highlight tours of the collections are given every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. For information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit the Museum’s website at http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.

February 1, 2012


On Monday, February 6 at 7 p.m., Princeton University English professor Jeff Nunokawa will commemorate Dickens’s 200th birthday with a talk in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7, the author’s actual birthday, a discussion of David Copperfield will take place in the Fireplace Area on the library’s second floor, and a screening of the 1935 film version of the novel is set for Wednesday, February 8, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room.

The same day the New York Times runs yet another gloom and doom story about the book business (“The Bookstore’s Last Stand”), I’m taking New Jersey Transit into Manhattan to see the Morgan Library’s “Dickens at 200” exhibit, which will continue through February 12. The book I’m reading is a 1929 edition of George Gissing’s study, Charles Dickens (1898). The woman sitting in front of me is also reading an actual hardcover book (can’t see the title) like the “actual books” the Times article discovers sharing the same room with “a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices” in the facility where Barnes and Noble “finds itself locked in the fight of its life.” I’m trying to get my mind around the idea that the Nook, “a relative e-reader latecomer” is “the great e-hope” that, along with Barnes & Noble, is the only thing “standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.”

The advent of Nook, e-readers, and e-hope, seems no more plausible than the phenomenon described by Gissing, who supposes that for at least 25 years of Dickens’s life “there was not an English-speaking household in the world, above the class which knows nothing of books, where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance.”

The Serial Solution

At the Morgan, which is an easy walk from Penn Station, there’s a glass case displaying a stack of faded gray green booklets comprising the original serial-form appearance of Dickens’s first work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers. These slender, unprepossessing 32-page pamphlets were the medium through which Dickens became a household name (and the founder and editor of a journal he called Household Words). Every novel he wrote made its appearance not as a completed entity but piecemeal. According to Joel J.Brattin’s “Dickens and Serial Publication” (www.pbs.org/wnet/dickens), the publishing of fiction in parts “grew dramatically in the 1830s” due to “the wild success” of Pickwick. Among the advantages of serial publication was that a novel in monthly installments cost “only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel.” It not only expanded the market for fiction, “as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan,” but also offered “the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets.” It also “created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished.”

Dickens also must have relished knowing that these little booklets were being passionately consumed by all levels of his readership, from the upstairs lords and ladies in Victorian incarnations of Downton Abbey to the footmen and scullery maids downstairs in the kitchen. While poor folks would have nothing but a stack of read-to-rags fragments at the conclusion of each novel, the well-to-do could take the monthly numbers to a bookbinder and have them bound into a single volume.

Could it be that, given the Nooking, Kindling, and e-virtualizing of the bound book, the serial form (reading “on the installment plan”) might be revived as a possible antidote to the shifting, drifting reality of bookland? A dangerous idea no doubt. Imagine the mayhem had the Harry Potter books appeared in monthly issues. The rub is, no living writer could do what Dickens did. Given his drive, his energy, and his unflinching pursuit of each of his many goals, Dickens could probably save the book business all by himself — if we could just conjure him up again.

His Handwriting

While I was at the Morgan a tour was in progress, vividly led by a woman whose delivery would have warmed the cockles of Elaine May’s heart, although Dickens may have been fuming in his grave to hear himself referred to as a dandified control freak with terrible handwriting who hypnotized his wife, lorded it over his home for fallen women, badmouthed America, walked 30 miles and wrote 30 pages every day, and looked better without a beard.

Anyway, it’s Dickens the writer who should be celebrated above and beyond the mesmerist, the philanthropist, the tourist, or the actor, though those sides of him were active and necessary elements in the chemistry of his genius. The essence of “Dickens at 200,” however, is his “wretched” handwriting (as the woman keeps reminding us), enlarged and legible samples of which adorn the gallery walls: “I am a reformer heart and soul” is above the display of letters related to “Philanthropy,” while the letters written during his first visit to America are on view under the heading, “They flock about me as if I were an idol.” The area devoted to the notes he made when plotting his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1862-65), is headed “The story weaver at his loom.” These jottings roughly outlining the first three chapters of a book that grew to 959 pages can be discerned in the background of the caricature of Dickens occupying the exhibit’s poster image, shown here. It’s as if the author were leaning on his walking stick against a coded landscape of his pen’s own making, a free-form force field of words, the DNA of one of his darkest novels. Look closely and you can make out the roman numerals above a scattering of notes for each chapter of the vast work he was composing 150 years ago while the Union and the Confederacy fought the Civil War. Gazing down at the various manuscript pages in the year 2012, you can almost see the movement of his hand and hear the rapid scratch-scratch of the pen scoring the surface of the page.

When you think of the quantity of ink Dickens lavished on these documents, the rivers of prose flowing from his pen, it makes sense that his portable ink well is one of the two personal objects on display, along with a brass seal given him by his friend and eventual biographer, John Forster. The ink well is disarmingly small, about the size of a cigarette lighter, but it has a powerful presence.

His Illustrators

Dickens illustrators George Cruikshank, Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), and John Leech, all on display in “Dickens at 200,” are as indispensable to the fabric woven by the “story weaver” as the characters they sketched, such as Cruikshank’s inimitable caricatures of Fagin and Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, Phiz’s Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield, and Leech’s rendering of Scrooge’s phantasmagoric voyage through Christmas past, present, and future. Cruikshank once claimed that he’d given Dickens the plot and characters for Oliver Twist. Nonsense, of course, and yet Cruikshank’s creations, like those of Phiz and Leech, come so uncannily close to matching the style and spirit of scene and character that one can’t imagine the novels without them.

It’s appropriate that William -Hogarth’s Gin Lane is displayed in proximity to Cruikshank’s illustrations for Oliver Twist. That novel’s subtitle, The Parish Boy’s Progress, reflects Dickens’s admiration for Hogarth and series like The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. According to the commentary, Dickens owned 48 of Hogarth’s engravings.

The day before my trip to the Morgan, I’d paid a visit to the main gallery at Firestone to see Hogarth’s vision of 18th century London in “Sin and the City.” My interest had been roused by George Gissing’s observation that Dickens had “assuredly learnt” from Hogarth, for “it was inevitable that such profound studies of life and character should attract, even fascinate, a mind absorbed in contemplation of poverty and all its concomitants.” It’s impossible to view “The Harlot’s Progress” without thinking of the fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist and the ruin of Little Emily in David Copperfield. Certainly one of the essential connotations of “Dickensian” is based on the author’s commitment to social welfare, whether it involved workhouses for the poor, prisons, public sanitation in London, or, in this case, his support for a home for the redemption of prostitutes (featured under “Philanthrophy” in “Dickens at 200”). The density of detail and Hogarth’s imagery in “The Rake’s Progress” and “Five Stages of Cruelty,” not to mention “Gin Lane,” have the boldness and descriptive density Dickens brought to his depictions of London squalor a hundred years later.

Dickens at Penn Station

An hour shared with Dickens and his illustrators in a relatively small gallery after skipping lunch can put a certain charge into the look of Manhattan street life on an unusually fine day in late January. A walk down 36th Street through the prolonged zig-zag pedestrian walkway around a construction site, evoked something wayward, crooked, and, well, Dickensian. All the dogs I saw were Dickens dogs, or, if you like, Hogarth dogs. The common denominator was England.

In the crowded Jersey Transit waiting area I found what seemed to be the only empty seat. The tension of anticipation before the frantic rush down to the train was all-encompassing. I saw nary a Kindle nor a Nook (as if I knew the difference) and few actual books. With a 20-minute wait ahead of me, I took out my copy of Gissing’s Charles Dickens and started reading at random:

“I had but to lean, at night, over one of the City bridges, and the broad flood spoke to me in the very tones of the master. The very atmosphere declared him; if I gasped in a fog, was it not Mr. Guppy’s “London particular”? — if the wind pierced me under a black sky, did I not see Scrooge’s clerk trotting off to his Christmas Eve in Somers Town? We bookish people have our consolations for the life we do not live. In time I came to see London with my own eyes, but how much better when I saw it with those of Dickens!”

The Morgan Library and Museum is located at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 36th Street. The undated caricature of Dickens is by Alfred Bryan (1852–1899). Gift of Miss Caroline Newton, 1974. The autograph manuscript page from Our Mutual Friend (1862–65) was purchased by the Morgan in 1944; MA 1202–3. 

November 30, 2011

timthumbReaders of Raymond Carver may recognize the variation on the title story from one of his most famous collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Roberta Smith used a version of the same title for a discussion of “the fashionably obtuse language of the art world” four years ago (New York Times December 23, 2007).

In terms of scale, “The Painterly Voice: Bucks County’s Fertile Ground,” which will be at the James A Michener Art Museum through April 1, 2012, is epic, with 200 works by more than 40 artists in three galleries. Curator Brian Peterson’s stated wish is to avoid “stuffy and obscure exhibit labels,” and his casual, person-to-person presentation of this massive exhibit is a refreshing departure from artspeak and the standard curatorial rhetoric, even though he sometimes risks a dumbing down of his subject. After confiding, for example, that from the beginning of his 20 years at the Michener, he’s “dreamed of doing this exhibit,” he ends by reducing “something special” to “a whole heckuva lot of really good paintings.” In his well-meaning attempt at down-to-earth diction, the curator inadvertently brings to mind George W. Bush’s notorious backslap to the incompetent FEMA chief after the debacle of Katrina (“Heckuva job, Brownie”).

The Show Online

Doing anything like full justice to a show of this scope is impossible. That’s why the Michener has put a large portion of the exhibit online, complete with commentaries and a world of information and imagery (http://www.michenermuseum.org/catalogue/painterly-voice). At the museum, QR codes are available for scanning.

The online format makes possible another look at some of the works that held me when I was there in person, including highlights from previous shows, such as Robert Spencer’s cityscapes, and Harry Leith-Ross’s Nightfall on Union Street and The Fair. One piece that kept me gazing beyond a minute was Goldie Peacock’s House, an oil on canvas from 1935 by Charles Ward (1900-1962). In its free-form feeling and sense of fun, it stands apart. There’s no reason why talking about this work shouldn’t be fun as well, and Mr. Peterson catches the spirit of the piece by citing George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (“those buildings are dancing, the trees are dancing, with each other, with themselves”).

Garber’s Light

If any single artist is the star of this show, it’s Daniel Garber (1880-1958), who was born in Indiana and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts and in Europe before settling down a few miles north of New Hope in Lumberville. The work that opens the exhibit is Garber’s 1935 painting of his mentor and colleague, Bucks County artist William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938). Also given a prominent place and featured on the cover of the museum’s Guide to Events and Programs is Garber’s 1915 portrait of his nine-year-old daughter Tanis.

“Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful.” Although these lines from Emerson are in the commentary accompanying Garber’s landscape, Willows – Noonday (1955), they are even more applicable to what the painter does with the interiors featuring his wife and daughter. Works like Tanis (1915) test the notion of “what we talk about when we talk about art.” How do you react to the blatant beauty of this image of a lovely child wrapped in a sort of diaphanous cloud while spring explodes around her with a brilliance that is almost painful to contemplate? The curator chooses to talk in vivid extremes, “her hair and blouse are lit up like fiery spotlights, as if their very molecules are on fire,” as if “a fairy has touched them with a magic wand …. This is the morning of the day the world was born [Peterson’s italics].”

The curator’s enthusiasm is understandable. It’s a stunning painting. Keeping the notion of talking about art in mind, I emailed the image, along with the other Garbers, to a friend I thought might enjoy seeing them. I made my own feelings abundantly clear (“The way he uses light is amazing!”), assuming she would feel the same way. Not a chance. “It’s a little twee for me, if you know what I mean” was her response to Tanis. If we’d been standing together in front of the painting, I might have tried to downgrade or justify my use of “amazing” by admitting that I felt sympathetic to the idea of the painter’s child, who was born in Paris, died a resident of Bucks County in 1990, and can be seen as a 17-year-old beauty in Garber’s serenely lovely Morning Light, Interior (1923). I might also have admitted that while “twee” wasn’t the word I’d have used, I could see a commercial touch in the soft, smooth, cleanly lighted image that gave it the overtones of a Maxfield Parrish illustration in a story book.

When we talk about art, we’re often talking outside or beyond or beneath it. How important is what we say? What difference does it make? And in the face of great art, what can be said that doesn’t sound either simplistic (“Wow, that’s amazing!”) or pompous? People conversing in the presence of the work will often temper their opinions for the sake of being agreeable, however much they may disagree. Or they may have other things on their mind. The day I was at the Michener most of the talk was not about the art but the effects of the previous weekend’s freak October snow storm. As I admired Garber’s The Studio Wall (1914), which my friend liked, too, someone was talking about the power outage. They were still without electricity and I was thinking, “Here’s power! Here’s electricity!” The Studio Wall is pure enchantment: the sunny day delicately reflected in muted tones of lilac and yellow, the classic beauty of the pose struck by Garber’s wife as she holds a small vase while wearing a vision in the guise of a kimono. Voice or no voice, the painting speaks in colors and images and effects, a form of communication that bypasses language, goes straight to the senses, and stops the conversation cold.

The Human Touch

In Daniel Garber’s painting of his mentor and colleague William Langson Lathrop, completed three years before Lathrop’s death in 1938, Lathrop is shown standing at close range, holding a pipe, his other hand thrust in the pocket of a comfortably lived-in looking jacket burnished in shades of brown and reddish gold somewhat like the hues in the forest floor of Lathrop’s work, The Forest (1918). In fact, the elderly painter might be dressed in one of his own land- or sky-scapes, his vest a field of flowers touched with the pearly pastel light of the sky in Evening Before the Storm (ca. 1898), his trousers showing the mottled pastel shades of the sky in Burning Fields, Bucks County (1898). Blazing behind the handsome, white-bearded man with the faraway look in his eyes is a wild, dark, free-form background, streaked and shot with vivid skeins of purple, orange, and red as intense as a nocturnal psychodrama out of Van Gogh.

Garber’s mastery of light, so brilliantly expressed in the paintings centered on his daughter and wife, becomes a subtle secondary presence in the portrait of Lathrop, touching the hand holding the pipe, the sleeve, the pocket of the coat, and as if attracted by the quiet thoughtful intensity of Lathrop’s gaze, the face, the white beard, the hair, and, the deepest, most telling touch, the faint semblance of light on his forehead. Stand in front of this work long enough and it’s possible to imagine that the man’s spirit, his thought, his art, his humanity, his vulnerability, everything he is, has been serenely, definitively illuminated. But then, as if to counter all that lofty verbiage, you have Lathrop’s nose, which appears to be inflamed, irritated, perhaps from a cold, a rash, the rubbing of a pair of spectacles. That suggestion of inflamed flesh is a deterrent to aesthetic overstatement. It says, “Keep things real, on the human level, where noses are blown, eyes get rheumy, and knuckles chapped, and where a pipe, like a paintbrush, can be an old friend.”

A Note on the Curator

Brian Peterson makes his priorities clear at the outset by invoking artist Marianne Werefkin’s observation as the epigraph for “The Painterly Voice,” (“There is no history of art — there is the history of artists”) and by placing Garbers’s painting of Lathrop at the entrance of the show. Curious to know a bit more about the chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, I came upon some information I think is worth sharing. Four years ago, Mr. Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to putting together this magnum opus of Bucks County art, and coming to terms with a devastating illness, he’s published a memoir, The Blossoming of the World: Essays and Images, illustrated with his own photographs.

Note: I’ve never dedicated a column to anyone until now. In one sense, every piece I write is dedicated to an ideal reader or readers, and one of my ideal readers was Everett Dale Gross, the contractor who for all purposes rebuilt the interior of the house we’ve been living in since 1986. Though he was known to most of his longtime customers and friends as Dale, we have always called him Everett. Of all the people I know, writers, poets and academics, doctors, lawyers, and librarians, this rugged Vermonter came closest to actually speaking in the direct, down to earth, no-nonsense voice Curator Brian Peterson seems to be striving for in his commentary. Everett died last week at 80, and I know we aren’t the only homeowners in Mercer County who are living in and appreciating every day of our lives the interior he built. All the moldings, doors, bookcases, closets, from the frames on the windows to the tiles on the kitchen floor are due to his handiwork, works of his straightforward art.