A photographer and painter inspire each other at State of the Art Gallery | Art

ITHACA, NY — Ithaca’s cooperative State of the Art Gallery (SoAG)recently hosted an informal public discussion featuring members Ileen Kaplan and David Watkins. The occasion was their two-person exhibition “Double Vision,” which was on display through May 1. Something of a rarity during the pandemic gallery-going era, the event attracted local artists and others looking for a more contemplative engagement with the art than typically afforded at the community’s monthly “first Friday” Gallery Night receptions. 

 

The show itself is something unusual for the SoAG: a genuine two-way exchange — if not quite a true collaboration — by two well-established area artists. Known for her delicately hued, sensitively rendered figurative and abstract paintings, Kaplan will be familiar to many local painting enthusiasts. Due in part to the difficulties inherent in achieving a genuinely distinctive “vision” in photography, Watkins’ nature scenes stand out less. Nevertheless, his strongest photographs here ably match Kaplan’s paintings with a depth and complexity of color, texture, and imagistic depth. 

 

As narrated by one of the gallery’s numerous wall captions, the pair’s back-and-forth began last fall, with Kaplan’s oil and pastel “Autumn Gold” offered as a free interpretation of Watkins’ “A Yellow Wood.” As with too many of the other match-ups scattered throughout the gallery, this one is not a fair fight. 

 

“Wood” is a decent nature photograph. The procession of skinny birch trunks and yellow leaves though would be equally — or perhaps even more — compelling on a screen. (Indeed, as printed, it has something of the brittle quality of amateur digital photography.) Something more is called for in a gallery-oriented art. 

 

In contrast to Kaplan’s more purely abstract work, “Gold” recalls a legacy of semi-abstract landscape stretching from Turner and Monet to the recently deceased American painter Wolf Kahn. Painted on two contiguous, distinctly proportioned canvases, the wide format piece submerges vertical dark brown lines in an abstract expressionist fog of pale-yellow, ochre, and beige. More than tree trunks, these recall the reeds that comprise Watkins’ most engaging subject here. 

 

From there, a regular — and evidently productive — call and response between the two artists has emerged. Often Kaplan would create an “abstract,” attempting to distill the color and feel of one of Watkins’ new or older landscape images. On other occasions, and with seemingly greater challenge, Watkins would attempt to capture a photograph echoing one of Kaplan’s paintings. 

 

The relationships between the two artists’ juxtaposed works is not always made clear by the hanging or wall captions. This is as it should be as it frees the viewer from the sometimes-didactic nature of their project.  

 

“Abstraction” in photography is often a gimmick or an unfulfilled promise but Watkins’ ventures into that terrain are amongst his best work here. Several images distort close-ups of flowers through focal or motion blurring: bright, buzzy, hypnotic reveries. A sympathy with some of Kaplan’s work is clear. His “Advance and Nick Sr.,” shown here in a different version, forms a basis for Kaplan’s piece on paper “Spring Poppies.”

 

It’s telling that these two pieces here are of similar small size. Watkins’ work would be more striking — especially aside Kaplan’s large pieces — if it were printed larger. 

 

If it isn’t already clear, know that Kaplan’s work here interests me more. I suspect I speak for many when I say that artistically ambitious photography — and nature photography in particular — is so often tainted by the ubiquity of both its means and its most common ends. Nature is, of course, beautiful. Capturing something of its beauty is fairly easy. Making a distinctively personal body of work with a camera is much harder. All of this is not to dispute or diminish Watkins’ technical capacity or the compulsion exerted by his best work here. It is to say that we’ve seen most of this before. 

 

Kaplan’s paintings, her abstract ones in particular, have their own limitations. These are very gratifying works here, alive with the sweet music of color and light and the tactile pull of paint texture. But for those of us intimately familiar with some of the great works of modernist abstraction, it is clear that these represent a kind of domesticated, genre-fied abstract expressionism. 

 

The telling term, tossed out at least once during the discussion last Sunday, is “abstract(s)” as a noun: abstraction as a genre akin to still life or portraiture, something that might readily be approached by hobbyist unaware of what some of us were taught to think of as a heroic or fraught history. Kaplan knows something of that history. And her work is more than hobbyist work. Still she appears to inhabit a middlebrow culture that constrains the ambitions of her art. 

 

Obligatory quibbles aside, this is a welcome exercise in curatorial ambition for a gallery that often appears to be merely spinning its wheels. Much of the work is quite good. 

This past Sunday afternoon, Ithaca’s cooperative State of the Art Gallery (SoAG) hosted an informal public discussion featuring members Ileen Kaplan and David Watkins. The occasion was their two-person exhibition “Double Vision,” which hangs there through the end of the week (May 1). Something of a rarity during the pandemic gallery-going era, the event attracted local artists and others looking for a more contemplative engagement with the art than typically afforded at the community’s monthly “first Friday” Gallery Night receptions. 

The show itself is something unusual for the SoAG: a genuine two-way exchange — if not quite a true collaboration — by two well-established area artists. Known for her delicately hued, sensitively rendered figurative and abstract paintings, Kaplan will be familiar to many local painting enthusiasts. Due in part to the difficulties inherent in achieving a genuinely distinctive “vision” in photography, Watkins’ nature scenes stand out less. Nevertheless, his strongest photographs here ably match Kaplan’s paintings with a depth and complexity of color, texture, and imagistic depth. 

As narrated by one of the gallery’s numerous wall captions, the pair’s back-and-forth began last fall, with Kaplan’s oil and pastel “Autumn Gold” offered as a free interpretation of Watkins’ “A Yellow Wood.” As with too many of the other match-ups scattered throughout the gallery, this one is not a fair fight. 

“Wood” is a decent nature photograph. The procession of skinny birch trunks and yellow leaves though would be equally — or perhaps even more — compelling on a screen. (Indeed, as printed, it has something of the brittle quality of amateur digital photography.) Something more is called for in a gallery-oriented art. 

In contrast to Kaplan’s more purely abstract work, “Gold” recalls a legacy of semi-abstract landscape stretching from Turner and Monet to the recently deceased American painter Wolf Kahn. Painted on two contiguous, distinctly proportioned canvases, the wide format piece submerges vertical dark brown lines in an abstract expressionist fog of pale-yellow, ochre, and beige. More than tree trunks, these recall the reeds that comprise Watkins’ most engaging subject here. 

From there, a regular — and evidently productive — call and response between the two artists has emerged. Often Kaplan would create an “abstract,” attempting to distill the color and feel of one of Watkins’ new or older landscape images. On other occasions, and with seemingly greater challenge, Watkins would attempt to capture a photograph echoing one of Kaplan’s paintings. 

The relationships between the two artists’ juxtaposed works is not always made clear by the hanging or wall captions. This is as it should be as it frees the viewer from the sometimes-didactic nature of their project.  

“Abstraction” in photography is often a gimmick or an unfulfilled promise but Watkins’ ventures into that terrain are amongst his best work here. Several images distort close-ups of flowers through focal or motion blurring: bright, buzzy, hypnotic reveries. A sympathy with some of Kaplan’s work is clear. His “Advance and Nick Sr.,” shown here in a different version, forms a basis for Kaplan’s piece on paper “Spring Poppies.”

It’s telling that these two pieces here are of similar small size. Watkins’ work would be more striking — especially aside Kaplan’s large pieces — if it were printed larger. 

If it isn’t already clear, know that Kaplan’s work here interests me more. I suspect I speak for many when I say that artistically ambitious photography — and nature photography in particular — is so often tainted by the ubiquity of both its means and its most common ends. Nature is, of course, beautiful. Capturing something of its beauty is fairly easy. Making a distinctively personal body of work with a camera is much harder. All of this is not to dispute or diminish Watkins’ technical capacity or the compulsion exerted by his best work here. It is to say that we’ve seen most of this before. 

Kaplan’s paintings, her abstract ones in particular, have their own limitations. These are very gratifying works here, alive with the sweet music of color and light and the tactile pull of paint texture. But for those of us intimately familiar with some of the great works of modernist abstraction, it is clear that these represent a kind of domesticated, genre-fied abstract expressionism. 

The telling term, tossed out at least once during the discussion last Sunday, is “abstract(s)” as a noun: abstraction as a genre akin to still life or portraiture, something that might readily be approached by hobbyist unaware of what some of us were taught to think of as a heroic or fraught history. Kaplan knows something of that history. And her work is more than hobbyist work. Still she appears to inhabit a middlebrow culture that constrains the ambitions of her art. 

Obligatory quibbles aside, this is a welcome exercise in curatorial ambition for a gallery that often appears to be merely spinning its wheels. Much of the work is quite good. 

https://www.ithaca.com/entertainment/art/a-photographer-and-painter-inspire-each-other-at-state-of-the-art-gallery/article_50191544-ca98-11ec-b67a-4b94cab48d43.html

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