Unless a viewer knows a bit of James Vogler’s bio, it won’t be clear why he chose “A Trail of Breadcrumbs” as the title for his seductive show of abstract paintings at Bristol’s WalkOver Gallery. But an interview reveals that the artist has had other, food-focused careers. He further explains that his landscape-inspired compositions at WalkOver contain references to clearings and culs-de-sac. Now consider a bread crumb trail figures prominently in “Hansel and Gretel” by the Brothers Grimm. It’s a foodie fantasy — breadcrumbs are the least of it — with a plot that pivots on the protagonists’ finding their way out of a dark forest.
Understanding all of this is not a precondition for enjoying Vogler’s vision. The large-scale canvases upstairs in the gallery-cum-law office, as well as the more intimate paper works downstairs, can be readily and deservedly appreciated without any clues about what inspired the art or influenced the artist.
Most of Vogler’s paintings derive their energy from an interplay — or clash — between transparency and opacity, light and dark, emerging and receding forms. The shapes resulting from those contrasts and transitions are usually amorphous but occasionally geometric. In a few of the works, such as “Clear Shot,” Vogler establishes a vanishing point, even without the kind of representational imagery that helps create the illusion of perspective.
All the pieces in the show rely primarily on color harmonies to entice the eye. Pastels predominate, with blacks and bright hues playing important supporting roles. Indeed, an outburst of vermilion on a Vogler canvas has an effect similar to that of a superstar cameo on a Broadway stage: unexpected and thrilling.
These are lyrical paintings that project a cheerful, reassuring aura — the visual equivalent of the happy ending to “Hansel and Gretel.” Vogler works hard, however, to achieve that effect. He builds his compositions by layering forms one over another and using all manner of markings. Streaks, squiggles, slashes and splotches frequently appear, as do blocky and blurry passages. Straightforward brushstrokes are sometimes visible, but soaking, dripping and scumbling also seem to be among this artist’s techniques.
Vogler says his works may start from inspirations such as a view from a window in his Charlotte home, or an association triggered by a radio commentary, but at some point in his creative process, the referent is supplanted by the need to solve a formal art-making challenge. Then the painting becomes more about the qualities of paint and less about expressing a thought or conveying a mood, he says.
“One of the things I’m a bit obsessed with in my work is that the viewer sees the whole process of how I got there,” Vogler adds in an email message. “I don’t want to hide anything — from the sketching to the layers of paint.” The aim, he writes, is to “give the viewer a better understanding of the process and how I have come to the end result.”
That’s an interesting but unnecessary bit of information; again, the paintings speak eloquently for themselves. “Swept Away,” for example, evokes a sense of wonder by means of its pink and yellow splashes, jagged cross-cuts resembling dark lightning bolts, and floating shapes of mauve, white and gray. It looks like a scene from the birth of the universe.
The 23 compositions at WalkOver are varied enough not to feel repetitious. The pieces upstairs differ in size and strategy from an eight-part suite of paintings on paper displayed downstairs. Graphite or oil paint has been applied to every square inch of the large, unframed canvases hung on the walls of a second-floor conference room. The smaller, uniformly sized works in the reception area haven’t been given the same all-over treatment. Instead, Vogler produces a double-framing effect for them by leaving their outer edges bare and mounting them on white poster board.
One element does remain constant throughout the show: a palette incorporating the colors of springtime, when all these works were completed. This gives the artist a strong stylistic identity, but it may make some viewers wish for a break from all the softness.
It’s hard for any abstract painter to make works that look entirely original. A viewer familiar with the modernist tradition will inevitably see, or read in, similarities to one or more of the big names of the 20th century. In Vogler’s case, Willem de Kooning seems to be an important influence. Richard Diebenkorn and Helen Frankenthaler may also affect his choices of color, spatial arrangement and technique.
Vogler is certainly well acquainted with the history of art. He worked for 10 years as an installer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He also studied cooking in France and worked for some years as a chef in restaurants in his native New Jersey.
Vogler moved to Vermont in 1991 and became focused on vegetable farming and developing a part-time business that he and his wife, designer Marcia Vogler, dubbed Pizza on Earth. They prepare gourmet pizza pies in a commercial-style kitchen in their Charlotte home and sell them once or twice a week, depending on the season, to legions of locals.
The couple have two college-age sons, one of whom, Vogler says, is a big fan of speed metal. In fact, he cites that genre of music as an incongruous source of inspiration for his art. “I often listen to it when I’m painting,” he notes. “I’m really into Buckethead.”
“A Trail of Breadcrumbs,” abstract paintings by James Vogler, WalkOver Gallery in Bristol. Through November 2.