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Art Review: "On the Landscape: A Feminine Eye," paintings by Bunny Harvey, Celia Reisman, Ginger Levant, Frances Wells and Kate Emlen. BigTown Gallery, Rochester. Through October 4.

click to enlarge A detail from “First Dropps” by Bunny Harvey
  • A detail from “First Dropps” by Bunny Harvey

The BigTown Gallery’s current exhibition, “On the Landscape: A Feminine Eye,” features five commanding artists who share a subject and a gender. Rather than drawing these works together under a feminist rubric, however, gallery owner and curator Anni Mackay selected them for their quality. On view are works by mature, internationally known contemporary artists who happen to be women. The show provides a window into their various views and renditions of the landscape. Style, palette and subject vary widely among them, suggesting complex, layered relationships to the natural and built environments.

Bunny Harvey’s dramatic palette contrasts deep greens and blues with bright blue-whites and lime-yellows. Her painting “First Drops” is a large horizontal landscape of a darkening sky looming over a spring field filled with geometric, grasslike marks and textures. Brooding trees form a middle ground between the yellow field and the blue mountains beyond. The sky is a morass of swirling, gray-blue clouds that hover right to the edge of the painting. You can almost feel the barometer dropping, the air charged. On the far left, bright blue paint “drops” punctuate the fall of thin, blue strokes that drip diagonally over midground trees, putting us right in the artist’s shoes, so to speak. Harvey makes us feel we are not just seeing rain on a field, but standing in the downpour.

Celia Reisman uses bold colors in her works, but to a very different end from Harvey. Reisman’s landscapes center on homes and buildings that she paints as clustered blocks of color, each in slightly “off” hues of the same shade. This technique creates energetic tension that contrasts with the steady order of the rectangular buildings. That orderliness at times recalls Edward Hopper’s paintings, but Reisman’s works are also joyful, even funny. In “Tall Trees in Fall,” a tightly closed green patio umbrella sits beneath the canopy of a tall, orange-red tree. The shelter of leaves covers the humanmade shade of the umbrella. In these compartmentalized scenes, Reisman paints the landscape of single-family culture while chuckling at its seriousness.

Ginger Levant is also concerned with the built environment, seen in the context of its natural surroundings. Levant employs an arid palette and a plein-air sensibility to “juxtapose human history as seen in local architecture with the wildness of the natural elements,” she writes in her artist’s statement. In “Olive Grove and Farmhouse,” she divides the canvas diagonally with a sloping hillside and horizontally with a mountainous horizon in the distance. A demure terra-cotta dwelling perches at their intersection, flanked by two enormous trees. The peaked building gives the painting a sense of balance and human history but is not its focal point, suggesting a supporting role for humans in the landscape.

People are absent from Frances Wells’ paintings of glassy rivers and soft, hulking hills. Wells is a contemporary Hudson River painter, bringing the famous earlier school’s reverence for nature and sense of romance into her own paintings. Her landscapes are soft and airy; yet these small canvases, edged in faint gold, deny us entry to the hazy sunsets. The paintings have a scrim-like quality, as if we are seeing the landscape through a screen door. They evoke a sense of longing, speaking to the beauty of the untouchable scene, and maybe to Wells’ yearning for the romance of the preindustrial landscape.

Kate Emlen seems to take a balanced approach to the landscape: Her work shows a mixture of Wells’ poetic distance, Harvey’s chutzpah and Levant’s architectural acuity. Emlen paints nature in its vast and powerful yet orderly flow. Her small paintings of mountains, “Connecticut River Evening” and “Connecticut River Morning,” are lush constructions of dusky blue, ochre and lime green. Simultaneously structured and loose, the works combine refined rendering with expressive flow. Emlen’s spectacular painting “Gathering Clouds” looks like an expanded version of the two smaller works, but the larger scale allows the viewer to relish the landscape in all its undulating wonder. Emlen translates compelling visual experiences with her concise, fluent brush.

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