Published December 5, 2012 at 9:17 a.m.
Realist painters who want their work to offer something more than technical proficiency face the challenge of endowing static subject matter with mood or personality — something to set it apart from mere reproduction of reality. Within that realm, portraiture — even when literally faithful to a sitter’s appearance — lends itself to psychological interpretation. Landscapes, not so much, but even there, skilled artists can evoke some emotion. Still lifes, however, may be the hardest type of traditional painting to lift beyond an exact representation.
Vermont artist Julie Y Baker Albright offers the alternative approach of dazzling viewers with near-photographic perfection. She approximates hyperrealism in her still-life oils in a show called “Painted Holidays” at Frog Hollow in Burlington.
Albright is expert at imitating the succulent red of ripe strawberries, even the gray-green of their unripe bunch-mates. She presents sensuous details with exceptional precision. Look, for example, at the reflection in a wooden tabletop of the yellow lettering on the spine of a book in the work titled “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Most impressive, perhaps, is the tactile quality Albright imparts to ewers and bowls, as can be vividly seen in the spidery crackle marks on the empty vase in the “Hawthorne” painting, arguably the most beautiful piece in this lovely show. (Albright has a particular empathy for the texture of fired clay, having started her artistic career as a potter.)
Despite these true-to-life elements, Albright’s work could never be mistaken for photography or trompe l’oeil, nor is that her objective. Brush strokes are clearly visible in nearly all of the 18 paintings on display. The edges of her tables aren’t utterly straight. White tablecloths don’t actually have blue, yellow and rose highlights in their weave, but they do in this artist’s work.
In a statement accompanying the show, Albright says she strives in her art to achieve “the illusion of the third dimension, to paint the air behind the object and to generate a tranquil experience.” She succeeds on every count.
Even so, some viewers who swoon at Albright’s impressive level of skill may still leave the show feeling vaguely unsatisfied. That may be because “tranquil” is another way of saying “undemanding.” That’s consistent with the aesthetic at Frog Hollow, and Albright’s art fits right in even as it stands out. Art aficionados looking for something edgier may admire her work but not choose to take it home.
“I paint from life in northern light with oil on panel in the classical style,” Albright explains in her introductory statement. That cool light appeals because of the warm shadows it casts, she adds.
Albright’s classical style most closely adheres to the great Dutch still-life tradition. But it’s not just a penchant for northern light she shares with those 17th-century artists; Albright also possesses their sure sense of color contrasts, harmonies and geometric composition.
The Dutch may be unsurpassed at painting glasses half-filled with water, but Albright performs this feat just as persuasively in “Black Eyed Susans.” She’s also their equal in rendering wrinkled folds of fabric — and even the fuzz on peaches — as is evident in “Peaches in Pewter Bowl.”
Albright’s choice of gilded frames reinforces her paintings’ old-school quality. She understands that a frame can greatly affect perceptions of what’s within it.
Albright’s art elicits associations with other eras and styles, too. The white paint she thickly applies for the tablecloth in “Petunias and Vetch,” along with the thinner white with subtle pastel shadings in the background of the same painting, might remind some viewers of the white-on-white composition of John Singer Sargent’s unforgettable “Fumée d’Ambre Gris,” which hangs at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
The Frog Hollow show, which runs through the end of December, represents something of a homecoming for Albright. She worked as resident potter at the craft center’s now-defunct Middlebury outlet after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1980. Albright also pays homage to Frog Hollow by incorporating objects crafted by fellow artisans there into many of her paintings. And, quite cleverly, several of those pottery pieces are displayed on pedestals in front of the paintings in which they’re depicted.
The Vermont State Craft Center has done justice — mostly — to a returning daughter. Albright’s paintings command a corner immediately to the left of the entrance, within front-window view of passersby on the Church Street Marketplace. But a couple of her pieces might be overlooked because they’re hung far below eye level on the sides of stool-height display platforms.
Admirers who can’t afford Albright originals, which range from about $900 to $3500, can find affordable takeaways in the gallery’s reproductions bin. Items there go for a mere $25 — a perfect price for budget-conscious holiday gifters.
“Painted Holidays,” still-life paintings by Julie Y Baker Albright, Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center, Burlington. Through December. froghollow.org
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