Coleman Bancroft LLC
January 21 – February 27, 2010
Stuart Shils’s intimate, easel-sized landscape paintings were suitably installed in Coleman Bancroft’s Upper East Side walk up living-room-converted-gallery-space, whose grand fireplace mantel was absorbed into the exhibition’s arrangement. Ambitiously wistful, poetic, atmospheric, these paintings exude grandeurs of specific light, atmospheres and environs directly observed from landscapes in Italy, Ireland, New York, and Philadelphia.
A plush touch and superfluous, incision-like pencil lines, along with decadent vistas such as “Castle Near Corciano, Pieve del Descovo” (2008), suggest landscape as a kind of touristic (view) and domestic (scale) luxury. Grace Glueck once declared about Fairfield Porter’s work: “Neither abstract nor representational, but existing in a light struck zone between, these [are] beautiful, well-mannered, WASP-y records of domestic felicity.” Glueck’s objections about Porter’s work encapsulates the second thing that bothers me about these landscapes: they are simply too beautiful and well-mannered. Each pencil mark (an understructure of the painting or overlaid garnishment?) is tastefully placed rather than determinedly hard-won. In “The Farm House Again, Late Summer, Strong Sun” (2008), a Fairfield Porter-like postcard of summery repose, foliage is carefully dabbed and blended as perpendicular lines timidly accentuate architecture and suggest omitted detail.
Of the suite of a dozen or so paintings, the most captivating are those depicting pure atmosphere. In these works, such as in “Clearing Sky, Strong Blue over the Village Trees” (2006), Shils moves beyond architecture along with its cultural and social signifiers and into an untethered, unselfconscious realm of abstraction. Unrestrained by realist conventions Shils appears to take more risks and liberties with both color and brushwork. In “Rain Passed, the Bay with a Touch of Sun” (2007), the only indication of the painting’s source is in its title, recalling otherwise—in its blurry striations of muted purples and greens—a Gerhard Richter squeegee painting.
Yet the majority of these Shils paintings could easily be imagined as souvenirs commemorative of a largely European tour. Suggesting mainly scenery of the privileged and pastoral, displayed in a neighborhood of Manhattan’s elite, it’s difficult not to view these paintings as also inapposite, luxury objects amid a recovering economy. In a present world of devastating natural disaster, entropic decay and environmental injustice, Shils’s paintings answer the questions “Why an idyllic brand of landscape painting now? What do these views say?” with only anachronistic sensibilities and subjects.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.