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On the Pastoral

Some reflections on painting the land-

Some reflections on painting the land-

By Brian Keeler

An essay on the works in the current show at my studio, the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.

The topography of light, an interesting idea, at least I find it compelling and quite apropos for encapsulating what I like to portray in my paintings. The way the light flows, describes, enriches, enlivens, infuses and colors the land is really the subject.

The context and subjects themselves are not unimportant for they supply the structure and supporting relevance. I like to use the thespian metaphor of protagonist and supporting actors if not antagonists as another way to think of the elements in any given painting. Sometimes however, the dynamic is shared and even flips or dances, so to speak, meaning that the light takes a supporting roll and the actual subject comes center stage as the main actor.

Using this analogy of topography of light and applying it to the landscape is a way for me as a painter to focus on the process and structure of painting but also to share those qualities with the viewers and patrons. The subjects of course are essential and vital. The pastoral views, the bucolic scenes, the distinctive architecture of farms and houses of the northeast are quintessentially Americana. We could even think of our 19th century buildings and lifestyle as the golden era of our country. The characteristic Victorian, Greek Revival, Second Empire buildings that were constructed by our ancestors mark a unique statement and exemplify a Yankee idiom. Those of us who were brought up in rural America sometimes take the singular artistry of the land, store fronts, hotels and homes as a given and of not particularly worth portraying or protecting. We can see this in how often these treasures succumb to urban development, sprawl and neglect.

When I travel to Maine, which I do periodically for painting trips, I feel like I am entering the heart of America as I encounter these timeless painted ladies and marvel at the “suchness” of the land and sea. The land and seacoast however take us beyond nationality and we enter into something more universal. Still, those towns that we visit and appreciate have a special offering for us. As we encounter uniquely northern icons, like articulated barns joined to houses, our sense of place is augmented.. Travel often reminds us of what is special and unique about our home areas as well.

This of course brings up my hometown of Wyalusing, PA, a village of about 700 along the Susquehanna. This town and the rolling hills around the river have been in my marrow and are the subjects of many of my paintings. This is why it so disconcerting to see the land devastated by the huge influx of the fracking industry but also the destruction of historic buildings. For example in Wyalusing, there has been an appalling disregard for it’s heritage with something like two or three historic homes razed each year. What makes this worse, is that they are often replaced by god-awful commercial enterprises like banks, mini-marts and shopping strips.

But back to the bucolic, which I suppose offers a sort of respite or refuge to contemplate the primordial and timeless aspects of nature. The history of painting the harvest, agrarian and pastoral has a rich history and has informed the work of many a painter. On of my favorite is the French 19thcentury artist L’Hermite whose powerful and unromanticised expressions of peasants were one of the main influences on Van Gogh and included in the Van Gogh Musuem in Amsterdam.

When confronted with the onslaught of industrialization we can also relate to Cezanne who also felt the same disdain even in the 19thcentury.

Another term that I like to bring up when explaining my painting is “geomancy.” I recently came across this word and connected to it as somehow getting to the crux of finding a motif in the land and earth but also expressing the physiognomy and rhythms of the land. Geomancy of course is related to Feng Shui and they both relate spatial arrangements and finding harmony. So adapting these terms for shedding light on my aspirations for paintings helps to get to some of the goals. Geomancy also has connotations of divination, which of course is determining the will of the Gods. I like this, as it adds another level to the process and even a spiritual aspect is elicited.

The subjects here in the pastoral- the people, farmers, field hands, the vineyard, the cows grazing are all part of the harvest the rural scene. These elements all comprise aspects of my paintings of rural America as well as work done in Italy and Ireland.

I will close with a quote from Kenneth Clark, in his book, “Landscape into Art” he writes; “ Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to higher plane of reality; and in landscape, this all-embracing love is expressed in light.”

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