How Nature Engages, Challenges, And Inspires Artists


NATURE - in its various moods and manifestations and as a metaphor for human creativity - holds center stage in an intriguing exhibition at the Schmidt-Bingham Gallery here. Ten painters and one sculptor are involved in this muted, deeply felt celebration of nature's intricacy and impact. They are John Alexander, Daisy Craddock, James Denney, Katherine Doyle, Philip Hershberger, Ray Kass, Kim Keever, Holly Lane, Philip McCracken, Charles Moser, and Tom Uttech. Together, they effectively demonstrate some of the ways nature engages, challenges, and inspires artists.

The pieces range from Charles Moser's realistic yet lyrical landscapes to Ray Kass's warmly romanticized calligraphic musings on life's inner workings. Moser and Kass, in fact, have produced the show's most substantive and effective pieces.

Moser's modest, quietly reverential studies capture nature at its most unaffected and whole, and Kass astutely transposes feeling and intuition into line, color, and extraordinarily charged ``empty'' spaces.

Both artists have other reasons to celebrate as well: Moser because he has successfully weathered a storm that threatened to engulf him after he renounced his earlier, more photographic landscape style; and Kass because he's broken through to a freer dimension of painting that allows him to give pictorial form to his many intellectual and aesthetic pursuits.

Kass's convincing, darkly mysterious ``Yellow Sulphur Triptych'' comes across as the most sophisticated and mellow - the most knowing - of all the works on view. Non-representational in the formal sense, it is actually more truly representative of nature than anything else in the show. Kass doesn't depict nature; he hints at and reveals it at a profoundly interior and imminent level.

Tom Uttech, on the other hand, instills his northern forest landscapes with a richly romantic view of nature as a wild and deliciously intimidating refuge from urban life. They are stocked with dense undergrowth, dark, vaguely threatening trees, a few animals (mostly bears) lurking in the bushes or posing dramatically where least expected, and strange, often melodramatic skies that suggest conflagrations and planetary endings. Both of his paintings here are outstanding, particularly ``Wabanag for Roger.''

Sculptor Philip McCracken takes a different tack in works that show the natural world interacting with the electronic age and that comment on man's dependence on nature's gifts for survival.

``Aerial Nest,'' built entirely of assorted metal debris, found its inspiration in an actual bird's nest. It comes from the sculptor's early conceptual period and depicts a square nest nestled against television antenna. ``Hide'' is a miniaturized reproduction in cedar of a stretched animal skin.

By far the most idiosyncratic works on view are Holly Lane's mixed-media pieces, which combine precisely rendered painted images with complex, exquisitely hand-carved framelike structures that are studded with miniature bas-relief and three-dimensional carvings of animals and birds. These counterpoint the traditional painted images to produce provocative constructions of considerable emotional impact.

Ms. Lane's intention isn't just to be fanciful but to confront the problems raised by exploitation and abuse of the natural world.

Each of her six pieces comments on this issue, some obliquely (``Then They Would Gaze into the Pool''), others more directly (``An Apology to a Dead Dog''), all with love and concern. Lane makes no threats but offers gentle, heartfelt warnings.

Another effective warning, this time about nature's vulnerability to fire, is found in James Denney's powerful oil, ``Lookout.'' Large, blunt, and aggressively painted by an artist who also works as a forest ranger, it makes its point simply and uncompromisingly, without sacrificing one iota of its artistic value in the process.

Also outstanding are Philip Hershberger's other-worldly encaustic, ``Cultivated Scene''; Daisy Craddock's oil pastel, ``Study, Afternoon at Liddon Lake''; Kim Keever's ``Pediment Stream''; and John Alexander's ``Feast Fit for a King.''

In all, the exhibition's organizers, Alice Bingham and Penelope Schmidt, have assembled an interesting and worthwhile show reflecting a wide assortment of styles, attitudes, and levels of quality for an excellent cause. The inclusion of Ray Kass was a master stroke.

At the Schmidt-Bingham Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, through July 27.

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