Articles by

Joyce Beckenstein

10/21/12 8:00am

Ulf Skogsbergh photo
Ulf Skogsbergh and Hope Sandrow collaborated on work stemming from Ms. Sandrow’s ongoing project ‘Open Air Studio’: Ms. Sandrow collected molted feathers of rare Paduan birds in glass jars.

“Nature Incorporated,” at Art Sites in Riverhead, celebrates the launch of Peconic Green Growth, a not-for-profit organization founded by gallery director Glynis Berry to promote a sustainable environment. The artists invited to participate answered the call with provocative works in media as varied as Mother Nature.

Expect the unexpected.

Like feathers — hundreds of them, sorted by color and preserved in six gleaming bell jars. They’re plumes gathered by Hope Sandrow of Southampton from rare Paduan birds that live and lay their eggs freely in her ongoing project “Open Air Studio,” a habitat this conceptual artist created to protect an endangered species.

These delicate silken specimens are also writ large in two enormous photographs taken by Ulf Skogsbergh in collaboration with his wife, Ms. Sandrow. Each breathtaking image magnifies a single feather; one, caramel-hued, its shaft like polished ivory, arcs across 16 feet of wall space. These grand images capture in a tiny wisp the exquisite beauty, complexity and fragility of life.

Sculptor Robert Oxnam, another artist who allows nature’s original intentions to prevail, coaxes to the surface the expressive life of gnarled weathered tree roots. He finds them embedded in sand along the shoreline near his Southold home and says, “They don’t look like much at first.”

But Mr. Oxnam, a renowned Asia scholar, intuits in wood the same spiritual energy ancient Chinese scholars saw within the archaic stones they prized and collected for meditation.

In the asymmetrical balance of works such as “Echo,” Mr. Oxnam similarly locates in wood the yin and yang in nature that so fascinated Chinese thinkers and philosophers. His intensive process involves cleaning the sand-clotted decaying find, then experimenting with the form to find its physical and visual balance point. He then applies layers of organic milk paint and gently burnishes the surface with wax to reveal its texture. He keeps going until the form says, “You’re done; this is what I have to say.”

Two artists in this show deal directly with environmental issues. Sag Harbor artist Nina Yankowitz’s video projection, “Global Warming Window,” creates a virtual window through which viewers watch a light evening drizzle morph into a hideous torrential storm with driving winds, lightning and horrific sound effects. When the deluge ends, a salmon-pink house basks in the light of day as a waterfall gushes through a first-story window.

But then, along comes Southold eco-artist Lillian Ball to stem Armageddon’s tide. Ms. Ball has achieved national acclaim for her trademarked Waterwash projects. Southold Town residents continue to enjoy the first one that reclaimed the ecosystem at the mouth of Mattituck inlet and created a parklike setting.

For her second Waterwash environment, in the Bronx, Ms. Ball again used permeable material with colorful recycled glass for paved areas. This composite reduces runoff and filters pollutants, preventing them from re-entering precious waterways.

It also makes great sculpture. Ms. Ball, originally a conceptual artist, gathered the excess recycled glass and sand used in the casting process — it would have been discarded — to create “Waterwash Outtakes,” a sparkling abstract work, for this exhibition.

Painter Scott McIntire of Greenport sees nature coexisting with “energy fields.” He explains: “If I’m looking at a flower or a building, I’m taking in the sounds and smells around me, responding to energy from cellphone towers and telephone lines. I want to bring those things into my work.”

In some works energy harnessed by technology appears to respect nature, but in “Considering Global Warming,” it instead portends an apocalyptic flooding of New York City. In this enamel painting, a stingray dominates the sea as the Chrysler Building sinks beneath the blue. Surreal circles of radiant light send out radiating signals, vagrant electronic voices of a once high-tech civilization.

Works on paper include one-of-a-kind lithographs by Andrea Cote of Flanders and watercolor sketches by Hideaki Ariizumi. Ms. Cote, a multimedia and performance artist, created six “Body Print Mandalas” by first making rubber molds of her body parts that she then applied to lithographic plates and printed.

The results suggest abstract Oriental motifs meant to inspire meditation and convey a sense of spiritual oneness and unity. Ms. Cote’s variation on the theme suggests fine embroidery or drawing: an ephemeral presence, delicate and fragile.

Hideaki Ariizumi is Ms. Berry’s husband, an architect and Art Sites partner. This well-deserved first exhibition of his interior and exterior watercolor sketches reveals a practical artist diagramming the solution to a problem yielding to the intuitive abstract artist who finds poetry in the relationship between shape and space. “Intertwining,” for example, presents a loose cubist idea of a house placed within a greenhouse.

This three-layered environment consisting of two architectural forms conceptualizes the integration of an interior set within a landscape and a landscape set within an enclosed environment.

Tracy Heneberger of Brooklyn is well known for his wall-hung assemblages made from resin- and bronze-cast organic materials, including but not limited to sharks’ jaws, sardines, vegetables, antlers, staples and squid.

His “Portraits” show, given a room of its own, features “Oblique,” a wall corsage of bronze mushrooms, and “Bouffant,” a compote of pomegranates resting in a grapevine root. It recalls the tradition of Dutch still-life painting — the kind with juicy apples and oranges, bathed in light and so real-looking it tempts the viewer to pluck a fruit from its frame.

But Mr. Heneberger’s sculptural equivalents, aglow with epoxy and metal, give one pause. This is forbidden fruit, deliberately so, to remind us of the need to protect the vulnerable natural world.

“Nature Incorporated” runs through Dec. 16 and includes “Inspired by Old China: Gardens and Rocks,” a free talk at Art Sites by Mr. Oxnam at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20. Reservations are suggested; call 631-591-2401.

‘Nature Incorporated’
On view through Dec. 16 at Art Sites, 651 West Main St., Riverhead. Featuring work by Hideaki Ariizumi, Lillian Ball, Andrea Cote, Scott McIntire, Robert Oxnam, Hope Sandrow and Ulf Skogsbergh, and Nina Yankowitz, and ‘Portraits’ by Tracy Heneberger.

‘Considering Global Warming’ by Scott McIntire

‘Global Warming Window’ by Nina Yankowitz

‘Bouffant’ by Tracy Heneberger

07/21/12 11:00am

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jackie Penney at work last week in her Cutchogue studio.

For old timers here, just the name of the artist — Jackie Penney — conjures images of the North Fork’s fields, sea and sky. Eel-grass tickling the surface of one painting beckons the eye toward Robins Island. In another, a pair of slatted Adirondack chairs casts shadows on grainy sand.

Now, in her self-published memoir, “Me Painting Me: A Memoir,” Ms. Penney shares her remarkable story about a difficult life eclipsed by her gutsy determination to be an independent woman.

“At 82 you can do whatever you want,” said the still feisty, iconic painter and fine-art teacher.

In a recent interview, Ms. Penney offered a preview of her memoir. An accompanying exhibition of her original paintings and reproduction prints (giclées) is on view at Cutch-ogue New Suffolk Library through Aug. 31.

Q. Why did you write your memoir?

A. I wanted to do it for a long time. Who am I? People don’t know. I think I’ve had a wonderful life but it didn’t start out that way. As a child you are scarred easily. There were two marriages, alcohol and dysfunction. I was stabbed in Mexico. I had no support. I divorced. Then everything changed, looked different. My colors became cheerful.

Two or three years ago I saw an article about a memoir-writing course with Sarah Bloom. It was wonderful. I wanted to do it for myself.

Q. What made your early life so difficult?

A. If I had to describe my childhood as a color, it would be gray.

My mother came from France. My father, an opera singer from Ireland, died when I was 4. Making a living in the 1930s wasn’t easy. My mother used all her resources, including my brother and me, to make money. We were Powers child models. I don’t think that was a bad thing for my mother to do, but it was tiring and it made me sad.

Five months after my father died my mother remarried and we moved to Florida … Rhode Island, Connecticut and back to Port Washington, where we started. That husband died. Husband No. 3 had alcohol abuse issues. It’s hard to describe what this does to young people, but I spent most of my time in the woods, by myself. At 16 my angel, Sandra Forman, a neighbor for whom I baby-sat, took me in. I left home to live (and work) with her.

Q. When did the bells and whistles go off that foretold you would be an artist?

A. I never thought I was an artist, and there was nothing at home — no toys, pencils, paper. But I remember one exhilarating moment, when I was in school, standing by a window looking at beautiful clouds. I’d set my crayons on a radiator and when I looked, I felt a palpable thrill seeing liquid color run down the radiator. [She referred to a painting, “My Head in the Clouds,” an abstract work that sparked the memory.]

But one teacher did encourage me, and so did Sandra Forman, who “knew” I was an artist and urged me to take every course offered. I was stunned when I got a scholarship to Phoenix School of Design. Norman Rockwell went there — that’s why I went. It gave me a great background in drawing. I was free in art school.

Q. So you pretty much fell into art by luck and circumstance. Did you continue your art education?

A. I went to Black Mountain College for the summer. What a stimulating place that was! I met Bucky [Buckminster] Fuller, who photographed me on a model of his geodesic dome to show how strong it was. (I weighed about 98 pounds!) I then studied at the Chicago Institute of Design but had to come home and get a job. I presented my portfolio at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald and Sample. They laughed and said, “We don’t allow women in the art gallery.” They hired me as a receptionist.

I got married.

Q. Black Mountain College was an avant-garde school. Did contemporary abstraction ever appeal to you?

A. When I first saw Picasso’s works, I found them disturbing, especially his violent treatment of women. I am basically a realist who has developed a popular style. My heart is in nature, though I do many different things. In fact, the people at the library said, “We know what you do. What else do you do?” Many of these other things are included in the show.

Q. Can you cite some examples of different themes and abstraction in your works?

A. “Still (Life) of the Party” is not happy; it’s austere and dark. The balloons are melting, bottles overturned, cigarettes stale in their ashtrays. It’s about alcohol abuse and how it affects your life. “Dancing in the Light” is a still life that tells how I feel when I paint. A pair of artist’s mannequins dance on a shelf with colored glass, crocheted doilies and flowers. Stripes of light go through the painting. It’s about the importance of the “negative” background elements that create the painting. And “Old Andruski Barn” is a myriad of rectangles, some positive, some negative. They’re everywhere.

Q. Did your love of light draw you to the North Fork?

A. No. I came in 1958 to spend time with my family, and finding time to paint was my biggest problem. My first husband, Bill, and I rented a cottage in Cutchogue and it was instant love. You could drive down the road and buy home-made bread. I loved the special light in Cutchogue and New Suffolk, where I would [in later years] take my students.

Q. How important was teaching for you?

A. It’s been my joy. People come into my world and bring me energy. Every once in a while extraordinary human beings walk into my life, gorgeous sponges who can’t get enough of what I teach. It’s exhilarating, and that feeds me.

Q. You dedicate your memoir to women who ‘fought for our lives and freedoms.’ Why?

A. The women’s movement gave me the chance to escape being a model of my mother. I became more aware of the contributions made by the women in my life, starting with my mother, who plays an integral part of my story. My daughter, granddaughter, daughter-in-law and friends are strong, confident women who are unafraid to be who they are. Because of the heroic, liberated women, many men now champion women’s equal place in our society. The men in my life, including my son and grandson, are among them.

01/21/12 9:00am

'Spring, Orient," 1997 by Skip Wachsberger

Stroll through Orient village and you’ll notice some unusual tropical plants popping up in local gardens. This summer, when the young shoots of these Basjoo banana plants are 15 feet high, they’ll toss their leafy manes and passers-by might just smile and say, “Hi there, Skip.”

Skip Wachsberger, a painter, writer and horticulturist who gave the banana pups to his neighbors, died Nov. 20, three months and a day after his marriage at Southold Town Hall to his longtime partner, Charles Dean.

“Clyde Phillip Wachsberger: Watercolors 1997-2011,” an exhibition of his paintings, curated by Mr. Dean in collaboration with Oysterponds Historical Society, pays tribute to a remarkable man.

“Friends and family came to his memorial in Orient from all over the country,” said Mr. Dean. “Everyone knew about his garden, but Skip was so modest that many were unaware of the extent of his achievements. With the publication of his book, and this show, everyone can better know his myriad talents.”

‘Clyde Phillip Wachsberger: Watercolors 1997-2011’
Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 21 and 22, 2-5 p.m., in Oysterponds Historical Society’s Swanson Gallery, Old Point Schoolhouse, Village Lane, Orient. 323-2480.

Mr. Wachsberger’s memoir, “Into the Garden with Charles,” was published privately last year as a limited edition of 150 copies. This April, publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish a trade edition of the book, with full-color reproductions of 13 watercolors by the author. Many of the original paintings are included in the exhibition.

Mr. Dean’s selections — some from his private collection, others borrowed from family and friends — link Mr. Wachsberger’s paintings to his memoir.

“Skip painted what he loved.” he said. “His garden, his family, friends and Rover [their Havenese dog] … he loved me and he loved Orient.”

Many of the modest-sized works, often no larger than the photographs that inspired them, recall snapshots from old family albums.

Mr. Wachsberger recreated the black and white images, their scalloped borders bent, black and white contrasts crackled and faded, into vivid watercolors on textured handmade paper.

“My memories color in emotions,” he wrote. “The moments I chose to paint are colored the way I remember them, or … remember being told about them, or the way I would like them to have been.”

To this end, he transformed an old photograph of himself as a toddler by framing the child in a profusion of sun-blanched grasses, backlit by summer’s searing light.

Mr. Wachsberger’s paintings are as masterful as they are unpretentious. A keen observer of details who felt keenly about the subjects he painted, he could translate an amateurish photograph into a wonderful work of art.

“Thanksgiving,” for example, portrays a young Skip, here about 8, sandwiched between his mother, his aunt and a green wrought iron lawn chair, like the ones in his Orient garden. In this revealing ’50s image of a little boy overwhelmed by forceful women, Skip’s mother carries a bowl that obscures part of Skip’s head.

Many images of Skip as a pre-teen in Florida reflect his love of the tropical plants he sought for his garden.

The paintings also hint at his early awareness of his homosexuality. “I’m probably watching a lifeguard through the rolled up magazine,” he wrote about “At the Pool, Florida.”

Mr. Wachsberger painted his many friends and relatives visiting Orient, absorbed in the vivid sights and scents in his garden, chatting on the back porch of his 18th-century home or sunning on his favorite beach at the end of Youngs Road. They include numerous images of Charles, often with him walking or gathering pebbles and rocks to add to their collection.

One hilarious painting, “Charles Crowned by Apollo in Adsworthy House Gardens,” features Charles clad in a Hawaiian shirt, greeted by a naked Apollo who places a laurel wreath on his straw-hatted head. Adsworthy House is the name the couple gave their home because they met through an ad.

“Skip loved Orient’s pristine landscape,” said Mr. Dean. His desire to see its natural beauty prevail shows in the uninhabited scenes he painted of Youngs Road, and the stilled tractors he depicted resting in their fields. Then there are his renowned botanical studies. Skip received the 2002 Garden Globe Award for his sumi ink illustrations for “Of Leaf and Flower,” an anthology he edited with Mr. Dean. He won the same award in 2011 for the illustrations in his current memoir.

Mr. Wachsberger greatly admired famed 19th-century painter and photographer William Steeple Davis, who preserved a sense of time and place. Mr. Wachsberger captured its essence in his own time.

“Almost everyone in Orient owns at least one painting by Skip, as locals own the works of Davis,” said Mr. Dean. “Hopefully, like Davis’ works, Skip’s will pass down through the generations, a reminder of this favorite son, whose legacy is in the paintings that evoke his love.”

12/17/11 9:00am

JENIA FRIDYLAND PHOTO | Emila and Ilya Kabakov are nearly dwarfed by the ‘Ship of Tolerance’ and its kid-generated artwork.

World-renowned artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov live quietly in Mattituck. But they are forces to be reckoned with on the global cultural stage.

The Russian-American couple, who once lived under Soviet oppression, focus their art on themes of tolerance and humanity, values that every day elude much of the adult world. That’s why they give kids — the ultimate victims of adult folly — a say.

Their latest installation, “The Ship of Tolerance,” is a child-oriented art project that’s traveled the globe since 2005.

The U.S. installation opened earlier this month in Miami Beach, Fla., in conjunction with the famed Miami-Basel Art Fair. The Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island, far from the boisterous hub where international glitz meets moneyed glamour, served as the venue. The museum helped plan and execute the event.

“This was a very personal project,” Ms. Kabakov explained. “My niece, who wanted to make the world a better place, died at age 19.

We decided to do a ship with children … perhaps they can learn to do things better; learn that respect and knowledge are the most important things and that all people are the same.”

The lives of these two artists are steeped heavily in these sentiments. Ilya Kabakov, born in the Ukraine in 1933, earned his living in Russia as an illustrator of children’s books. All the while, his memory archived the scenes of inhumanity he witnessed, intermingling them with centuries of Russian folklore and myth.

Humor, he learned, made survival possible. His prodigious output of installations, paintings, sculpture and drawings was not possible in communist Russia. The world did not discover his genius until the 1980s, when he was living in the United States.

Making public art happen is a feat unto itself that demands near-superhuman creative imagination and energy. Since 1989, Ukrainian-born Emilia Kabakov has collaborated with her husband on public works that, she said, “deal with ordinary people who must face extraordinary situations.”

It’s a phenomenal partnership. In 2004, the Kabakovs became the first living Russian artists to have their work exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Kabakovs designed “The Ship of Tolerance” to replicate an Egyptian sailing vessel. A master builder from Manchester, England, traveled to each port of call with a team of students to supervise the on-site construction.

The vessel is built anew in each participating country, using local materials. The Kabakovs invited local children to create images that express understanding and a sense of community, some of which were used to decorate the ship and form its sails. Waterproof paint and sail fabric were provided by the couple.

“We went to different countries with specific challenges,” said Ms. Kabakov. She worked with schools and other learning organizations to develop curricula about tolerance and humanity. In the ancient city of Siwa, Egypt, the site of a 2005 installation, a remote tribal community sitting on an oasis in the Libyan desert, children don’t have art classes.

Many had never seen a boat, so the idea of a journey by water provided a unique way to trigger their imaginations.

Divisive immigration issues consume Venice, Italy, the home of a 2009 exhibit. The fear of war overwhelms St. Moritz, Switzerland, and complex cultural restrictions collide with artistic freedom in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The couple mounted exhibits in both locations last year.

“Miami was a perfect North American venue for this project,” said Deborah Spiegelman, executive director of the Miami Children’s Museum, which runs a charter school in addition to offering numerous art classes and programs.

“Miami has one of the most diverse populations in the country,” she added. “People from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands; Latinos from Guatemala and Mexico; South Americans; a huge population of Cuban émigrés; Asians; and Americans representing every conceivable ethnic identity and religious background. More than 67 languages are spoken here.”
The children who participated in “The Ship of Tolerance” represent the broad socioeconomic spectrum, from the poorest to the most affluent populations of the city. Ms. Spiegelman emphasized the importance of having two renowned artists bring the Miami art fair to the many who could not afford to attend.

And then, the “Aha!” moment. At dusk, as mariachi bands serenaded the setting sun, youngsters and their parents crowded around the ship as crewmen raised the 150 vividly painted sails.

Which of the 300 drawings had been selected for the mast? No one knew, though every child’s work was displayed somewhere, perhaps inside the museum or at one of the many hotels and restaurants catering to the thousands who congregated for the four-day extravaganza of art shows, parties and performances.

The delicate sails slowly unfurled to the squeals and yelps of mesmerized youngsters. A 3-year-old and his parents burst into tears as the child’s flag billowed in the Biscayne Bay breeze. Eight-year-old Signa Dijurick pointed to her flag, which featured an image of Earth with a boat sailing across the sea flanked by the Norwegian flag, a flag with a heart and one with a peace sign.

“Someone set off a bomb in Norway and I want peace there,” she said, explaining the image’s symbolism.

Representatives of the North Fork community played a part in the Kabakov effort.

Former Greenport mayor Dave Kapell navigated the politics of Miami, helping to find a venue for the project. Working with the Kabakovs’ representatives in Miami, he helped arrange the connection with the children’s museum. Amei Wallach of Mattituck, an art critic, writer and filmmaker who is in the final stages of completing a documentary film about the Kabakovs, was on hand for the Miami opening. Times/Review Newsgroup corporate officer Troy Gustavson was there, too, to record this chapter in North Fork art history.

The journey of “The Ship of Tolerance” is ongoing and, metaphorically, won’t end until the world is at peace.

The next port of call? Top secret.

11/26/11 12:00pm

'Against the Tides,' photograph by Conrad J. Obregon Sirens' Song Gallery

You won’t find a partridge in a pear tree or eight maids a-milking, but you will find 12 nudes cavorting and one duck a-splashing among the offerings at North Fork galleries this holiday season. There are no holiday themes, but there is something for everyone looking for art and, in the spirit of giving, a number of galleries are donating a portion of sales to worthy causes.

Everyone wants to be at the front of the line — the one leading to Greenport’s South Street Gallery for the annual “10 x 10 = 100” fundraising art exhibit and sale (preview Friday, Dec. 2, 6 to 8 p.m.; sale, Dec. 3, 6 p.m.). Each year, participating artists complete a work of art on a 10-inch-square board provided by Greenport gallery director Amy Worth. All works sell for $100 to buyers who queue up for this first-come, first-served opportunity to own, for a tiny price, an original work by an emerging or well-established artist. This year, half the proceeds will benefit North Fork Environmental Council.

Sibylle Maria-Pfaffenbichler "Swing" oil on canvas 9x12

“Joy of Music and Dance,” a concurrent exhibition at the gallery (through Dec. 31), features works by Sibylle-Maria Pfaffenbichler, an artist with a remarkable flair for translating the sensuous and riotous rhythms of jazz and rock-and-roll into joyous explosions of color. Each painting embodies the synergy of couples as they slide, glide, slither and swing to the plaintive wail of a sax calling to an unruly roll of drums. A 20-foot-long scroll rendered with disarmingly simple lines explores the unself-conscious movements of the body as it responds to the harmonies and dissonances of music and dance.

Caroline Waloski, director of The Sirens’ Song Gallery in Greenport, conceived the exhibit “All A Twitter” (Nov. 19-Jan. 8) with a bird life theme, juxtaposing Dianne Martin’s semi-abstract, often surreal images with Conrad Obregon’s photojournalistic portraits of North Fork wildlife. Ms. Martin uses twigs, weeds and feathers to create etchings, monotypes and collage works that she further embellishes with ink on paper. Her most interesting results are cropped in ways that play the textural details of feathers, flora and fauna against the abstraction of her flattened compositions. Much of the work by Mr. Obregon, an avid bird watcher, was photographed on North Fork shores. He demonstrates his quick, sharp eye for the split-second body language of birds with his image of a common merganser making an uncommon splash as it zooms through the water. Ms. Waloski is donating 20 percent of the gallery commission to the North Fork Audubon Society.

There’s a one-man exhibition at deCordova Gallery in Greenport (through Dec. 18) and that man is gallery owner Hector deCordova, who says, “If there were a theme to this show it would probably be called ‘The work he is most proud of … so far.’ ” In an exhibition celebrating 10 years of his career, Mr. deCordova curated his oeuvre in groupings by theme: floral, energy-fueled abstraction, compelling immigrant narratives that explore diversity and figurative works that include pets as memory connections to childhood pasts.

“Group Exhibition: Emerge 1.0” (Dec. 3-31) at Terrence Joyce Gallery in Greenport was curated by gallery manager Mathew Salerno and artist Colin Goldberg. Mr. Salerno and Mr. Goldberg recently founded Emerge.li, an online blog devoted to Long Island artists. It aims to help those artists emerge from the shadows of the New York City art world by spreading the word about their own work and by helping others find appropriate venues for what they are doing. Six Long Island artists culled from this networking were chosen for this show: Ellen Wiener, Colin Goldberg, Bryan Landsberg, Steve Miller, Brian O’Leary and Oliver Peterson. They work in a variety of media that includes etchings, digital prints, painting and mixed media.

'Rothman's' by Mike Stanko Rothman Gallery

Art in Southold (aka Rothman’s Gallery), a funky gallery where you can buy art, a guitar or a washing machine — and listen to some great music provided by gallery director Ron Rothman and friends — continues its ongoing exhibition, “Greetings from the North Fork” through Dec. 31. It offers works by Mike Stanko, Stacy Brandfon and Mr. Rothman. Mr. Stanko’s acrylic paintings of local street scenes, plates of food and flowers riff on pop art in a simplified, charming style reminiscent of Grandma Moses. His storefront portrayal of Rothman’s captures the charm and character of the historic Southold department store, where in 1939 Albert Einstein bought sandals, played the violin and chatted with Mr. Rothman’s grandfather, David. Ms. Brandfon, who helps run the gallery, presents a series of “Kai” paintings in which she combines watercolor on canvas to create pastel effects, and Mr. Rothman exhibits a selection of realistic photographs taken from his highly imaginative perspectives.

“Collected,” the new exhibition at Art Sites Gallery in Riverhead (Nov. 26-Dec. 31), says thank you to the many artists who have for eight years participated in this venue’s much-heralded exhibitions. Director Glynis Berry has selected works that reveal her evolving choices over time and that tell stories about how artists came to her attention. Some artists introduced her to others, guest curators brought fresh talent and new perspectives and sometimes artists just appeared at the door, portfolio in hand, and asked, “Will you take a look at my work?”

The show reveals a curatorial map with no set boundaries. It includes works by environmental artists Bob Braine and Leslie Reed; multi-media and performance artist Andrea Cote; and self-taught artist/curator Candyce Brokaw, founder of Survivors Art Foundation, an organization that promotes the work of all who have suffered physical and mental abuse. It also includes works by the late Mac Wells, a well-known contemporary of major mid-20th-century masters, and Darlene Charneco, a rising young new star.

Those looking for art in the form of handmade holiday ornaments will want to visit East End Arts’ Holiday Gift Market in Riverhead, which runs through the end of December.

10/26/11 11:13am

COURTESY PHOTO | Marianne Weil's glass, copper, bronze 'Bullseye'.

Mention Art Sites to artists, collectors and critics who know the Riverhead gallery and they’ll likely say, “Glynis — she has some eye.” They’re talking about Art Sites director Glynis Berry. The current group show, featuring four well-known veteran artists — Debbie Ma, Mel Pekarsky, Marianne Weil and Ellen Wiener — eloquently reflects her skill at finding artists with something to say and arranging their works in ways that say still more.

A practicing architect in partnership with her husband, Hideaki Ariizumi, who helps her run the gallery, Ms. Berry spots unique, often quirky, talent that she exhibits with an architect’s flair for form and space. Rather than taking familiar shortcuts by assigning broad themes to connect the works featured in group shows, she instead seeks more variegated threads that relate works by one artist to those of another.

About the current exhibition, which has been extended through Nov. 13, she says, “It brings together works by accomplished, mature artists who are comfortable with their medium. I wanted to explore how each of them expands and finds new forms for what they do.”

To eliminate the possibility that strong works by strong artists would fight one another on the walls, Ms. Berry chose art with muted palettes. The various works she selected, linked together through neutral tones of black, white, gray and soft amber, all bow to the dramatic subtleties of texture and line. Ms. Berry’s quiet choices allow Debbie Ma’s vigorous paintings to court Marianne Weil’s elegant new sculptures.

Ms. Ma, of Calverton, is an accomplished graphic artist who designs the packaging for well-known cosmetic companies and began her parallel fine art career 10 years ago. Her graphic background taught her how signs and symbols convey a powerful message, her study of Chinese calligraphy how they cast mystical spells.

“Ancient writing was the earliest form of abstract art,” she said. “Each Chinese letter is open to interpretation — the sign for water can be three squiggly lines that suggest rain or tap water … so many meanings.”

She is simultaneously alluding to pictographs of her own devising, such as those in “Oracle Bones,” a work densely textured with marble dust and layers of gray, black and white pigment incised with pictograms that suggest undecipherable graffiti on ancient peeling walls.

Ms. Ma’s paintings are soul mates to Marianne Weil’s sculpture, which also reinvents the signs and symbols of antiquity. Ms. Weil, of Orient, is assistant professor of art at CUNY College of Staten Island. She has for many years exhibited her work at Art Sites and Kouros Gallery in New York City. This year she was the United States representative to the 2011 International Sculpture Symposium in Frostrup, Denmark.

The Neolithic cairns, steles and slabs she studied in Brittany and Spain inspired Ms. Weil’s early bronze figures. Now she has extracted the spirals, grids and punctured outlined shapes embedded in those haunting pieces and placed them in organically shaped vessels of golden-hued blown glass. “Bullseye,” for example, holds a piece of industrial copper bent into a spiral, a primordial symbol of nature and a repeated motif in Ms. Weil’s sculpture. Here the human-made detritus of contemporary life is effectively suspended like an embryo in light, much as amber seals prehistoric remains. The viewer’s reflection in glass completes the metaphor.

The Weil sculpture and Ma paintings share primal histories through abstraction. But they also resonate with the literal stories and representational styles common to the art of Mel Pekarsky and Ellen Wiener. And as Ms. Berry said, “These works are also linked by the artists’ use of line.”

Mel Pekarsky of Stony Brook, former chair of the art department at SUNY/Stony Brook, evolved from a figurative painter to one involved with environmental issues. He designed the first Earth Day poster in 1968, and then went into the desert with army accommodations at Fort Hood, Texas.

“Elvis was there and so were snakes,” he quipped. “I found the desert to be symbolic of all that is precarious. … The desert has strong enough icons to make people think about the earth.”

Ellen Wiener's 'Four Manilas'

Mr. Pekarsky has traversed American deserts from high country to the badlands of the Anza Borrego Desert in Southern California. His “pencil painting” perspectives were drawn from airplanes, horseback and ground level. “High Sierras” is a sparse rendering of naked desert punctuated by thirsty sticks of brush conveyed through delicate but nervous lines. In contrast, “High Desert,” a broad expanse of receding planes stretching toward distant mountains, is so intricately rendered that it reads as pure abstraction when you stand up close to it.

Ms. Berry set aside a separate gallery space as an intimate reading room for works by Southold artist Ellen Wiener. Here one finds a scroll-format painting, limited-edition prints of the artist’s original accordion books and paintings on manila envelopes. Ms. Wiener, who taught at Princeton University and Dartmouth College, is renowned for her artist books inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts. Her works are in numerous national libraries and in the Arts of the Book Collection at Yale University Library.

Though Ms. Wiener’s paintings and folding books are representational, they have no fixed narratives. They are “about” the passage of time and reading them requires the viewer to take time perusing them. Unrushed.

“Numinous Woods” unfurls like an epic poem about monuments — astronomy domes, grave decorations, the tower of Babel, crumbling medieval ruins, skyscrapers. Using a complex process that involves drawing, print transfers and oil painting, the work deals with nostalgia for times past and for the book as a container of memories.

“Four Manilas” uses manila envelopes — a new canvas for Ms. Wiener, who drew across them a sheet of yellow legal paper scribbled with images of crumbling ruins, a reminder that in a digital age of “you’ve got mail,” you no longer have the kind of mail that affords the tactile pleasures of opening an old-fashioned envelope.

Glass, ancient scrolls, imaginary calligraphy, desert drawings, books, paintings, sculpture, representational art, abstraction and narratives without stories. How do they all work together?

It’s Glynis. She has some eye.

Art Sites Gallery
West Main Street, Riverhead
Work by veteran artists Debbie Ma, Mel Pekarsky, Marianne Weil and Ellen Wiener, on view through Nov. 13.

09/03/11 5:45am

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Studio East Gallery owner Terry Falquero, right, with customer Dennis Scamardella of Staten Island during the Gallery Walk in Greenport last weekend.

In the art world, when the going gets tough, the tough get creative. Art dealers, the first to be affected during an economic downturn, know that now is the time to show resilience. During this particularly difficult recession, they’ve reinvented how they do business, hoping that art buyers will return in full force when jobs do.

“We’ve considered changing our way of operating,” says Hector deCordova, who runs deCordova Studio and Gallery in Greenport with his wife, Joyce. “We usually get a good mix of people — older folks and the 30- to 40-somethings. But this year they seem intimidated about walking into a large show, because they don’t intend to buy. Some act apologetically, as if walking in is an intrusion.”

The deCordovas are experimenting with more intimate shows — smaller exhibitions of works by single artists viewed in the unique setting of their gorgeous old Victorian home/gallery on Main Street. “It’s a way for viewers to get a sense of scale and imagine how a particular artist’s work might look in their own homes,” says Mr. deCordova, who hopes this welcoming setting will attract visitors, many of whom for now just wish to enjoy looking at art.

Because large themed shows are expensive propositions, Amy Worth, director of the South Street Gallery in Greenport, will launch fewer of them. She will instead offer an assortment of new works by familiar gallery artists. Caroline Waloski of The Sirens’ Song will spend more time creating and showing her own etchings, and Glynis Berry, director of Art Sites in Riverhead, is thinking about more exhibitions of artist-driven themes related to community and environment. These shows will benefit her newly formed not-for-profit, Peconic Green Growth. Going forward she plans fundraising events to support the organization’s many environmental causes, including alternative septic systems and the creation of sustainable sites within communities.

Art-based fundraising events, especially auctions, are popular win-win situations for artists, dealers and organizations, all of whom share in the profits. Bidding has benefits: It’s great fun — an adrenaline rush excited by the steal of a deal; it’s competitive and social — everyone gets to be seen; and it’s an affirmation of personal taste — look how many others want what you do. Last but not least, it’s an opportunity to support a worthwhile not-for-profit and walk away with a work of art you love.

Mr. deCordova reports that his recent benefit for 88.3 Peconic Broadcasting was a huge success and he’s planning others for next year because, he says “It’s surprising how many people visit us after they’ve seen works by the artists we represent at auction.”

Ms. Worth, who puts a different spin on the benefit sale, concurs. Her 10×10=100 exhibition and sale has people lined up in the street for hours for an opportunity to purchase a small work for just $100. “We are delighted to be offering one 10” x 10” board per artist,” she says. On the eve of the sale, buyers are allowed to make their purchases of the art-filled boards on a first-come, first-served basis. This December, the benefit event will support the North Fork Environmental Council.

Though these events barely fill gallery coffers, they do draw people into the gallery. Ron Rothman, director of Art in Southold Gallery, uses live music performances related to his exhibitions to enhance attendance. He packs in crowds with concerts that this year included one by Caroline Doctorow. Some performances carry a small $10 charge, others are free.

Workshops and gallery talks also encourage people to participate in the art scene and while galleries have for years augmented art sales with classes in a variety of media, they have made those offerings ever more alluring this year. This summer, Ms. Worth hosted a workshop with Naomi Campbell, an internationally known artist who teaches at New York’s Art Students League. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, award-winning impressionist painter Peggi Kroll-Roberts will hold court during classes that include a plein-air session focused on interpretations of light and dark using the draped figure.

Terrence Joyce’s summer potpourri of enticements resulted in good sales for his Greenport gallery. For an opening in May, featuring Hawaiian artists Jack and AJ Ferrel, Mr. Joyce provided lively music and a sushi chef. The artists stayed on for two additional days to demonstrate their use of 15th century French painting techniques. In an outreach to artists, Mr. Joyce also held an upbeat, free 12-week workshop, titled “The Artists’ Way,” led by Isabell Haren Leonardi. Painters, printmakers, sculptors, writers and musicians gathered to discuss how to follow their hearts and talents at a time when, says Mr. Joyce, “the culture often sees only superstars as having something to offer mankind.” All these ventures take an enormous amount of time and effort, sighs Mr. Joyce, who keeps his gallery open seven days a week and frequently works past 11 p.m.

The collateral benefits of programs that nurture a general interest in the arts are paying dividends. Audiences are comfortable in these “no strings attached” settings. They ask questions freely and become part of the art dialogue. Many participating gallerists report that increased traffic and sales follow such events. This is especially evident with the new series sponsored by East End Arts and Peconic Landing. Every third Thursday, July through November, local gallery directors host free arts-related programs at Brecknock Hall, the magnificently restored 19th-century mansion that serves as venue for this collaborative program.

A standing-room-only crowd attended Amy Worth’s session, “About the Sea,” the theme of her gallery exhibition. Her discussion with artists and writers who draw inspiration from the sea featured author Michael Tougias, a sea-disaster survivor, who spoke about his book, “Overboard,” which chronicles his ordeal. Storm paintings by Orient artist Annie Wildley, were displayed as backdrop.

On Thursday, Sept. 14, Caroline Waloski and Terry Falquero of Studio East will discuss art inspired by the epic 9/11 attacks. Ms. Waloski will show select prints from a 9/11 portfolio produced by 43 artists from the Manhattan Graphics Center. Five complete portfolios are in the permanent collections of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society. These prints will be exhibited at The Sirens’ Song Gallery, from Sept. 27 through December.

The stock market may rise and fall during a recession, but art is a quirky commodity that transcends its own market. It is what keeps our North Fork community the vibrant place it’s become.

06/13/11 2:35pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | 'Sanctuary' by Gina Gilmour of Mattituck

Folk artists don’t ask, “What is art?” They just make it — in the form of everyday objects, some utilitarian, some pure whimsy.

Weather vanes, signboards, painted enamelware, itinerant portraits, decoys, quilts and whirligigs are among the most familiar examples of American folk art.

For the current Folk Art exhibition at the East End Arts Council gallery in Riverhead, director Jane Kirkwood called for works by “unschooled artists or those skilled enough to appear unschooled, funky and fabulous.”

This artist call makes no bones about it. The definition of folk art, which refers to creative works by self-taught artists, has here been tweaked to encourage EEAC participants, tutored and untutored, to take their art in fun directions they may not otherwise have pursued.

In keeping with this genre stretch, juror Kathy Curran says her selections favored pieces with a “folk mystique that recalled idealized memories of Long Island surroundings or that reflected the craft and utilitarian origins that define folk art.”

Ms. Curran, exhibition and public program coordinator for the Suffolk County Historical Society, holds a master’s degree in American folk art from New York University. She will make an informal presentation at the EEAC Gallery on Saturday, June 18, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., discussing her selections and presenting examples of folk art from her personal collection.

Each attendee may also bring one personal folk art treasure to discuss. The gallery is located at 133 East Main St., Riverhead, and there’s a suggested donation of $5 per person.

The Yankee spirit loathed waste and prized ingenuity, and much of folk art’s irrepressible charm springs from its quirky, at times freaky, constructs of odd parts and found objects made to amuse adults or as children’s toys. A great example is the best-in-show piece, titled “Skate Boys,” by Jonathan Pearlman of East Quogue.

His laugh-out-loud construction made from ordinary stuff, imaginatively assembled, features a rare breed of creatures with bodies made from dried seaweed pods resembling crabs. They wear acorn caps or feather hats and balance themselves on wooden balls connected to an old splintered wheel.

Mr. Pearlman also created a wooden sculpture of a duck, its beak formed by a woman’s high-heel, its tail from some fan-shaped metal detritus.

Pure amusement is also found in “Lion Tamer,” a miniature sculpture by Patricia Beckham of Smithtown. She used a twisted tangle of metal to create a capricious Alexander Calder-like circus lion in a face-off with his limber master.

Folk art, which relies heavily on visual symbols ­— political, social, sexual and religious — is particularly intriguing when the artist creates powerful metaphors from everyday ephemera or discarded “junk.” Gina Gilmour of Mattituck uses a bit of both in each of her two submissions.

“Sanctuary,” which won first prize, catches the viewer’s attention with gentle guile then delivers a one-two punch. Here, a modest wooden plinth supports a weighty, old iron washer, the kind used in heavy construction. It has a perfectly round opening that here serves as a cave-like space where a sweet plastic lamb finds shelter.

But the miniature sculpture also suggests a reliquary, a reminder of those who are vulnerable, who sacrifice, who are abandoned. Global tensions in faraway lands come to mind.

In “The Price of Oil,” which received an honorable mention, Ms. Gilmour makes a more direct statement. This sculpture assumes the shape of a pyramid made of charred-black plastic soldiers, a jumble of bodies ascending the stem of an unattainable bright red flower.

Riverhead resident Jane Kirkwood’s multi-media work, “An Unholy Wrath – And, The Strange, Sad Story of Santa Librada,” draws inspiration from the tradition of illustrated religious wall hangings and samplers for the home. But her decidedly feminist choice of subject transforms the humorous image of a bearded lady into an updated statement about the horrors of abusive relationships.

The work describes how Santa Librada’s prayers to avoid an unwanted marriage were answered when she miraculously sprouted a beard. That got rid of her suitor. But her father crucified her. Ms. Kirkwood created a digital image of the crucified bearded saint on handmade paper attached to bark. She then studded the crucifix with tiny nails. The text of the story, in computer-generated calligraphy, accompanies the image.

Ms. Kirkwood’s use of natural materials contrasts with her technology-driven process, just as the story of the subjugated crucified woman contrasts with her current updated status as the patron saint of both abused and liberated women.

Much folk art is enjoyed solely for its decorative embellishments of utilitarian objects. Examples in this show include “Belle Starr,” winner of the second prize,” a banjo with a woman’s portrait painted on its face, its handle encrusted with jewelry, by Scott O’Hare of Baiting Hollow.

There are also Christmas ornaments made from Ukrainian-style painted eggs by Riverhead’s Holly Barlin and a hand painted chair by Anna Jurinich, also of Riverhead.

Many paintings in this exhibition borrow from the vivid flat patterns and nostalgic scenes associated with works by Grandma Moses, as well as from the stylized designs of stencils and the geometry of quilts. Most notable are two honorable mention works: “Red Barn” by Margarita Kritsberg of Southold, chosen for it’s quilt-like surface, and “Farm Life with Sheep” by Rhoda Gordon of Port Jefferson Station.

Viewers will also find “Still Life,” a floral painting on glass by Leo Revi of East Hampton, and “Soup’s On,” a charming kitchen interior scene by Barbara Haddon of Sag Harbor.

Two lively abstract color paintings, “Hysterical Delusion” by Maez of Bayside, which took third prize, and “Lola, which won an honorable mention, by Aija Meisters of Long Beach, are closer in spirit to contemporary outsider art than they are to traditional folk art. Today the lines between these two genres are often blurred.

Outsider Art is most often informed by the artist’s personal experiences and symbolism, folk art by shared cultural signs and symbols. The outsider artist, like the folk artist, is also self-taught and works outside the realm of those academically trained.
The show runs through July 15.

‘Folk Art’
Juried mulitmedia show
On view through July 15 at East End Arts Council gallery, 133 East Main St., Riverhead.
‘What Is Folk Art?’
Talk by guest juror Kathy Curran Saturday, June 18, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at EEAC gallery.
Call 727-0900 or visit eastendarts.org.

05/11/11 1:50pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Marion Jones of Southold 'Best in Show' 'Misty Morning" acrylic, graphite and crayon.

After the gloomy winter we’ve endured, “East End Light,” the current juried art exhibition at Riverhead’s East End Arts Council, celebrates the hope and promise that comes with spring. That we must, however, treat nature better than it’s been treating us these days is the message of “Vital Signs 2011,” an exhibition of works by eco-artist Janet Culbertson of Shelter Island, on view at South Street Gallery in Greenport. Taken together, these two art shows reflect both the agony and ecstasy that we confront in our natural environment.

The East End Arts Council exhibit dazzles with scenes we never tire of — stretches of farmland courting cosmic acres of sky; diamonds of light dancing on the bay; green and russet wetlands muted when glimpsed through misty fog. Evanescent and elusive, light — which both makes our world visible and renders it mysterious — is a particularly difficult element for artists to deal with. It is hard enough to render a tree fading into haze, tougher still to make that image into a metaphor for the transience of life.

Juror Glynis Berry, director of Art Sites Gallery in Riverhead and the nonprofit Peconic Green Growth, chose 56 works for the show from 275 entries. Her selections rewarded those who skillfully interpreted the effects of the especially beguiling light that has lured generations of plein air artists to the shores of eastern Long Island.

The resulting display reveals how different artists’ interpretations of the same subject can play with the viewer’s understanding of “reality.” For example, Marion Jones’ painting “Misty Morning” (best in show) and Steve Berger’s photograph “Snow Field” (second prize) both feature a calligraphic band of trees between the sky above and a color field below — the sea in the semi-abstract painting, snow in the photograph. But a sun that emerges bright in “Misty Morning” cedes in “Snow Field” to a surreal full moon, adrift in a moody gray sky. Oddly, the abstract painting seems almost truer to life than the crisp representational photograph.

Light defines texture in Toby Haynes’ pastel painting “Evening Light, Gerald Drive II” (third place). In it, a simple fence meandering along the shore serves as foil for a brushy technique that evokes the feel of grainy sand beneath one’s feet and the refreshing chill of an early morning swim.

Two honorable mention works, “Green Canoe” by Fred Vanderwerven and “October Grey” by Diane Martin, also explore the color and texture of nature as it’s revealed by light.

In Barbara Schneider’s  “New Life Awaits”  (honorable mention), the light from a waxing  moon boldly outlines a turtle as she gazes upward, beckoning the moon, it seems, to protect the eggs she’s deposited in the sand.

“There are surprises in every show,” says Jane Kirkwood, referring to “Long Island House and the People Who Live There” (first prize) by Lisa Petker-Mintz. This vibrant multimedia composition juxtaposes bright red people forms with cubist shapes representing windows, walls and the landscape of a suburban living space. Blue and red-to-orange accents enliven the surface, suggesting both natural and artificial light.

Janet Culbertson’s exhibition, “Vital Signs,” sheds a very different kind of light on things.

“The exhibition speaks to our troubled relationship with our environment,” said South Street Gallery director Amy Worth, who timed the show to recognize Earth Day.

What’s toxic dazzles in Ms. Culbertson’s large, seductive landscapes. Devoid of sun and humanity, they seethe in the afterglow of Armageddon and shine with metallic glitter generously worked into lavish, densely packed collages.

Ms. Culbertson nostalgically remembers her childhood, when she canoed and hiked in Pennsylvania’s lush Allegheny Valley. But the hills harbored nasty neighbors: corporations that mined for ore and coal. They seeped neon orange ooze into pristine streams and chewed clean whole sides of mountains. That ravaged landscape etched a deep impression on the young woman, who became one of America’s first environmental artists.

She came of age in the late ’60s. Fueled by the feminist movement, she began to make her first eco-political images when the general public was only vaguely aware of the consequences of environmental pollution. Today, her prescient paintings and drawings are in many important collections, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
In this current exhibition, Ms. Culbertson updates themes for which she is well known, particularly her iconic billboard paintings. Originally these “paintings within paintings” featured billboards — with advertisements for beautiful American destinations — stuck in the rocky remains of landscapes reduced to rubble. In “Vanishing Butterflies,” the billboard is dwarfed by a phosphorescent sky. Now only a butterfly remains, impaled and bleeding its color on the billboard’s surface.

The figurative elements of her early works at times give way to pure abstraction, as in “Sunburst,” a collage that is all luscious texture, aglow with iridescent pigment. But get close: The sunburst is in fact a burst universe reduced to shards of glass and detritus, a landscape that cannot be glued back into wholeness.

Other works riff on industrial “parks,” those oxymoronic sites that attempt to conceal greedy corporate motives beneath a thin cover of manicured grass. The highways that enable the masses to drive to work at these campuses are the subjects of another series, “Paving America.” “Car Pool” is among a group of related canvases that depict these tarry stretches as labyrinths, clotted and clogged with shiny metallic cars going nowhere.

Ms. Culbertson knows how to make beautiful surfaces people love to look at. But she does it to force a confrontation with truths most would rather not see.

“I cannot escape the mostly disastrous news events,” she says. “As an artist I try to deal with them in paint.”

A second exhibition at South Street Gallery features works by a group of artists who have contributed environmentally related art for this show. They include Roz Dimon, Joseph Esser, Gina Gilmour, Anna Jurinich, Maureen Palmeri, Barbara Roux, David Slater and Lorena Salcedo-Watson.

East End Light/Vital Signs
‘East End Light’: juried art show at East End Arts Council, Riverhead, through June 3. Guest juror Glynis Berry or Art Sites Gallery. 727-0900.
‘Vital Signs 2011’: landscapes by Janet Culbertson at The South Street Gallery, Greenport. On view through May 30. 477-0021.

03/28/11 2:26pm

The work of the late artist Mac Wells is on display at Art Sites in Riverhead

Eileen Wells of Orient has not moved a thing on artist Mac Wells’ desk since the day he, her husband, died in 2009, at age 84.

It’s crammed with well-worn clean brushes, small plastic paint pots filled with luscious pastel colors, some sandpaper, coins and an old postcard from a Greek monastery. All these things share a space that is so well ordered that one senses the artist would know immediately if someone had moved things about.

Mr. Wells is gone, but his beautiful paintings, drawings and studies are on view in a memorial exhibition at Art Sites in Riverhead. The show, which includes many of his seldom- and never-before-seen works, runs through May 8.

Mr. Wells made abstract color paintings – the kind of art that many find perplexing because they have no figures and tell no stories. But his works are not at all difficult to understand. All you need to do is look through the window above the desk where Mr. Wells gazed at the sea and the sky.

He’d look above the roof tops through the sycamore branches — naked in winter, leafy in summer, but always tickling the sun — to the teal stretch of ocean abutting the palest blue sky. Every season blossomed a new palette, every day a different mood, every hour a shift in light. Nature does not delineate things with the order seen on Mr. Wells’ desk.

Art for Mr. Wells happened when the logic of color and light coalesced with the mercurial moods of nature. But Mr. Wells wanted both these elements to command equal attention, He did not want color to disappear within the landscape, as it does in representational painting where it becomes part of a visual illusion.

The magic of Wells’ abstraction is apparent in “La Mer,” a watercolor sketch quickly jotted down in a spiral notebook. Here bands of luscious brush strokes read as gradations of the color blue at the same time that they suggest the roll of waves toward the shore.

Born in Cleveland in 1925, Mr. Wells was raised in New Jersey by parents who encouraged his interest in art. His father was a journalist, his mother a school principal. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1948, where he studied philosophy, he came to New York and enrolled in an art program at Cooper Union.

“He made a living as did many artists back then, doing odd jobs in book stores and libraries, or finding clerical work. I met him while we were both working at the New York Public Library,” says Eileen Wells, who was at the time studying ballet and modern dance.

They married in 1953 and lived among the avant garde artists, whose digs in “Hell’s Hundred Acres” defined the far-left-of-center world of bars, lofts and galleries that were the breeding grounds for contemporary art, music, poetry and performance. Today the area is called SoHo.

Ms. Wells says her husband was never part of any single group.

“He was a shy man who started with little shows on the Lower East Side, at Aegis Gallery,” she said. He met many contemporary artists — Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin and Jim Rosenquist — when his wife was working as a curatorial secretary at the Museum of Modern Art.

His works are in many fine collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum. He came of age alongside these artists at a time when art was purging the globs and drips of Abstract Expressionism. This new generation of minimal, optical, hard-edge, color field and conceptual artists distilled the visual language down to its basic vocabulary: a single swiped stripe, optical color fields; all-black or all-white canvas to hone one’s sensitivities to total darkness or the serendipitous play of light and shadow on unblemished surfaces.

Paula Cooper’s Park Place Gallery — “a lively place,” according to Ms. Wells — welcomed them. Here Mr. Wells exhibited in group shows and was noticed by Larry Aldrich, founder of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. In 1966 Mr. Aldrich included him among the 37 artists he selected for the “Art in America” new talent feature. In 1967, Mr. Wells became a member of the prestigious organization American Abstract Artists.

“To be around him was like stepping into a quiet pond. He was an extremely spiritual person who made peace with himself and he educated by example,” says Greenport artist Gabriele Evertz, associate professor of art at Hunter College, New York.
Professor Evertz, a noted abstract painter, knew Mr. Wells first as his teaching assistant at Hunter, where he was a full professor, then as a colleague and, until the end of his life, as a close friend.

“He taught me to find my voice,” she said. “He took away the fear of finding your own voice.”

Because Mr. Wells practiced what he preached, he did not develop the kind of instantly recognizable signature style that makes an artist an iconic figure. His works instead slip through all the defining cracks of abstraction.

His more oblique signature engages the conversation between art as visual language and nature as spiritual essence. He understood both to be so pure, yet so complex. Thus could Mr. Wells’ paintings at times be brushy or hard-edged, opaque or transparent, solid or evanescent, mathematical or spiritual.

Two paintings in the current exhibition reveal how comfortably he shifted from the lexicon of color theory to the illusory whims of natural light.

“Sound Spectrum” suggests the spectrum of natural light that the artist most likely recorded at sunset, when the sky appears bright and red. Mr. Wells notes the sun’s descent toward the horizon in thin layers of watercolor that fade from orange to pink, until, finally, the fire of day yields to the blue-green abyss of ocean and bids good night.

A series of broad colored bands, representing the spectrum of artists’ colors, traverse this delicate wash of sea and sky, like measuring sticks gauging the harmony between the artist and Mother Nature as each of them manipulates color and light in their distinctive ways.

“Untitled” works in reverse. Here the artist starts with a red square and a series of hard-edged colored bands ranging from orange to green alongside it. But the square radiates a glowing aura of ever-more vivid red. For Mac Wells, the red square could be a setting sun.

Photographs by Raymon Elozua are featured in a separate installation at Art Sites. Mr. Elozua explores the abandoned campgrounds and bungalows in the Catskill Mountains, where city workers during the 1930s to 1950s went to escape the hot summer heat, relax and play. Mr. Elozua focuses on discarded enamelware he’s found and uses these chipped and broken kitchen relics to create abstract compositions.

Through this abstraction the artist distills the memory of those who enjoyed the simple pleasures of a bygone time.
His work can also be seen through May 8.