EXHIBIT: James McGarrell: "Window Jazz Inventions," new abstracted paintings. Studio Place Arts, Barre. Through June 16.
ARTWORK:"Trane" by James McGarrell
It's unusual for an internationally known, historically important artist to mount a substantial exhibition at a lesser-known, community-based arts center, but that's exactly what's happening at Studio Place Arts in Barre. Painter James McGarrell was born in 1930 and now lives in Newbury, Vermont. His illustrious career includes decades of teaching at the university level, winning nearly every major prize and grant available, and appearing in several of the most important exhibitions of the mid- to late 20th century. His SPA show, "Window Jazz Inventions," unveils new work, demonstrating that McGarrell isn't content to rest on his laurels or rehash the style of the images that made him famous.
McGarrell is one of the few critically informed artists of his generation to reject nonobjective abstraction in favor of figuration. Ironically, his pieces in this exhibition have shifted gears to lose figurative, narrative content. As the show's title implies, McGarrell is still working with the notion of a "window into space." But in the works here, space is fractured and inhabited solely by rhythms, textures, lines and various states of pure color.
Jazz has proved a popular theme for painters. McGarrell's four monumental, 60-by-80-inch painterly vistas - "Bird," "Trane," "Prez" and "Hawk" - are all named for bebop greats. "Trane," of course, refers to saxophone legend John Coltrane. Layers of red-on-red patterning and ornamental brush strokes, especially noticeable in the upper, pale-green areas of the canvas, seem to jostle for attention, while broader foreground swaths of darker color pull into focus the smaller shapes deep in the picture plane.
"Prez" was the nickname of another sax great - Lester Young. Like that of "Trane," its hot-red backdrop seems to glow, though the painting has cooler passages. It also has the most Matisse-like use of patterning. Areas that appear to have been stenciled aren't. Rather, McGarrell superbly cuts into negative space to sharpen edges where needed, and he scumbles wildly at other intervals. Any painter or observer who understands this surface will no doubt appreciate the "performance."
Not all of McGarrell's paintings are monumental, but jazz is at the heart of every one. The artist borrowed song titles for most of his smaller pieces. "Easy to Love" is the moniker of a Cole Porter tune reinvented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. McGarrell's version is a pleasing pair of two 16-by-16-inch panels combined horizontally. He calls it a "reversible diptych," since it works equally well regardless of which side is left and which is right. One of the panels has a broad area of light purple that functions as a window; an abstract doorway appears in the other panel, making the diptych seem like a room interior. Wide, dark brushstrokes act like shadows, falling over the middle of the picture planes.
Curator Mark Waskow writes in his statement for the show that there "are a limited number of truly significant, recognized, world-class artists who create works here in Vermont. I believe that it is important for those who 'make it' to come back and show others tangibly that it is possible, that it can be done. It is motivational to the next generation, and it provides credibility to the local institutions."
The James McGarrell show brings plenty of cred to Studio Place Arts. The painter is as virtuosic with his brush as the musicians he hails were with their instruments.