Out Painting The Town

A Trio Of Dinnerware Artists Bring Contemporary Art Back To The Canvas With Their End-Of-Season Show.

By Margaret Regan

PAINTING ISN'T DEAD, after all. At the end of a season that has lionized the making of art from such exotica as metal debris and discarded underwear, Dinnerware has mounted a show that celebrates the fine old art of painting. That's right: the application of pigment to a surface with a brush. The three painters exhibiting, Eric Twachtman, William Blomquist and Michael Chittock, mostly use time-honored materials--oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache--and for the most part they apply them to old-fashioned canvas and paper. Their skills vary, but there's no question that they are doing their bit to keep the old art alive.

Twachtman even comes from a family tradition of painting. He's the great-grandson of American painter John Henry Twachtman, who lived from 1853 to 1902. Under the spell of Impressionism, the elder Twachtman created "exquisite, atmospheric landscapes in oil and pastel," according to one authority. Eric says his grandfather's art never brought much success though, and the family never particularly encouraged the younger Twatchman to pick up a brush.

Review But he looked every inch the painter when he happened by the gallery the other day, all disheveled hair and spattered T-shirt. He didn't take up art seriously until after completing an English major, he said; only after college graduation did he enroll in art school. The late start didn't keep him from following in his forebear's landscape footsteps, though his aesthetic is his own. His works are more expressionistic than impressionistic, and they have a contemporary environmental undertone.

"Witnessing the ever-accelerating destruction of nature makes portraying it even more sacred to me," Twachtman wrote in an artist's statement for the Dinnerware show. "Responding to this with paint is my life's ambition."

Twachtman takes his inspiration from the Sonoran desert, from ocean dunes, and from murky pools in forests. But his paintings are hardly realistic evocations of these familiar haunts. Instead, they're intensely emotional responses to place, wild slashes of color that hover unabsorbed on the painting surfaces, manipulated by brushes, scratchy points, and sometimes the artist's finger-painting. They're deconstructions of hallowed nature. The real-life swamp immortalized in "Swamp," a 1999 mixed media on paper, became watery deep-dark greens against a pale, yellow-green sky. The mirror images of plants and their watery reflections are abstracted into bold vertical lines.

"Monsoon," a 1998 acrylic on canvas, travels even further from representation. The storm's black cloud is reduced to a curling shape against an orange-red sky, and the spiky desert below has become loose drips of turquoise paint pooling into lime green. Likewise, "Dune" doesn't get the conventional seashore treatment, though its parts are more recognizable. It has a nice, dramatic composition. The summit of the dune towers high above the focal point; and, as is typical of Twachtman, the perspective is flattened out. The teeming grasses are translated into swirls and scratches of paint, all black, gray and green, lightened by bursts of pink and orange.

Twachtman's colors are intense. Cherry red slices through the middle of "Bog," a 1999 mixed media on paper; bands of blue, green and pink stand in for the receding layers of the landscape. Deep black and blue-green alternate in "Black Rock," another 1999 mixed media on paper. "Still Hill," a mixed media on paper from 1998, is moodily dark, with greens so deep they're almost black. Perhaps the most beautiful is "Sonora," 1999, the largest painting Twachtman's exhibiting at about 4-by-5 feet. Here he adapts our beloved desert into a watery cascade of colors: nature's rock-rigid mountains liquefy into the desert's cascading green cacti, all limpid and lovely.

Blomquist works the old dodge of oil on canvas or panel; but his imagery, what he calls "emotional architecture," is quite contemporary. He generally paints some kind of central figure--a vaguely human shape, a plant, a sail, or some indefinable object--against a background divided into geometric space. "Hummingbird," a 1999 oil on panel, has an intricate composition of horizontal, vertical and diagonal shapes, framing an off-center, narrow rectangle that encloses flowers and other objects unknown.

Blomquist knows what he's doing with his paint, deploying all the centuries-old tricks. He transforms his flat surfaces into illusionistic, three-dimensional space. He softens and blends with the brush, so that every line is thick and palpable with color. Most pleasing of all, he knows how to put color against color--yellow against cerulean blue--to luscious effect. In "Hummingbird," a dark green undercoat pumps up the lemon yellow and tan on the surface.

Chittock is the contemporary rebel of this painterly trio, delving into new media, mixing his acrylic paints with sawdust and ash to force his images off the canvas. His paintings are thick, three-dimensional affairs, highly stylized desert landscapes and cartoonish figures in interior places. The landscapes are rather nice, but his technique works against his paint. The sawdust and ash rob his acrylics of their sheen, making the bumpy surfaces seem lumpen and static. The paint, which deserves to flow across space, seems trapped.

Livelier and more successful are Chittock's playful forays into painting on cut metal. In "Fish Pond," three painted metal goldfish cavort several inches above their home base, a flat painted pond in which the ripples have been cut out and distributed among the leaping fish. He's also made a fine series of portraits in oil pastel, "Sleeping," a chronicle of a friend's long night in the hospital. It's a prodigious group of 14 drawings, each dated by the hour and minute, lovingly depicting the sleeping man as he tosses around his sickbed. Chittock drew the pictures on pages of The New York Times.

The headlines and photos of the newspaper intrude in interesting ways into the drawings, making the series a marriage of techniques old and new. The very contemporary found material--cheap newsprint--collaborates with the time-honored pastels.

An exhibition of paintings by Eric Twachtman and William Blomquist, paintings and sculpture by Michael Chittock, and sculpture by Stacy Blackmer-Blomquist continues through Tuesday, June 9, at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 7 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 792-4503. TW

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