After the gloomy winter we’ve endured, “East End Light,” the current juried art exhibition at Riverhead’s East End Arts Council, celebrates the hope and promise that comes with spring. That we must, however, treat nature better than it’s been treating us these days is the message of “Vital Signs 2011,” an exhibition of works by eco-artist Janet Culbertson of Shelter Island, on view at South Street Gallery in Greenport. Taken together, these two art shows reflect both the agony and ecstasy that we confront in our natural environment.
The East End Arts Council exhibit dazzles with scenes we never tire of — stretches of farmland courting cosmic acres of sky; diamonds of light dancing on the bay; green and russet wetlands muted when glimpsed through misty fog. Evanescent and elusive, light — which both makes our world visible and renders it mysterious — is a particularly difficult element for artists to deal with. It is hard enough to render a tree fading into haze, tougher still to make that image into a metaphor for the transience of life.
Juror Glynis Berry, director of Art Sites Gallery in Riverhead and the nonprofit Peconic Green Growth, chose 56 works for the show from 275 entries. Her selections rewarded those who skillfully interpreted the effects of the especially beguiling light that has lured generations of plein air artists to the shores of eastern Long Island.
The resulting display reveals how different artists’ interpretations of the same subject can play with the viewer’s understanding of “reality.” For example, Marion Jones’ painting “Misty Morning” (best in show) and Steve Berger’s photograph “Snow Field” (second prize) both feature a calligraphic band of trees between the sky above and a color field below — the sea in the semi-abstract painting, snow in the photograph. But a sun that emerges bright in “Misty Morning” cedes in “Snow Field” to a surreal full moon, adrift in a moody gray sky. Oddly, the abstract painting seems almost truer to life than the crisp representational photograph.
Light defines texture in Toby Haynes’ pastel painting “Evening Light, Gerald Drive II” (third place). In it, a simple fence meandering along the shore serves as foil for a brushy technique that evokes the feel of grainy sand beneath one’s feet and the refreshing chill of an early morning swim.
Two honorable mention works, “Green Canoe” by Fred Vanderwerven and “October Grey” by Diane Martin, also explore the color and texture of nature as it’s revealed by light.
In Barbara Schneider’s “New Life Awaits” (honorable mention), the light from a waxing moon boldly outlines a turtle as she gazes upward, beckoning the moon, it seems, to protect the eggs she’s deposited in the sand.
“There are surprises in every show,” says Jane Kirkwood, referring to “Long Island House and the People Who Live There” (first prize) by Lisa Petker-Mintz. This vibrant multimedia composition juxtaposes bright red people forms with cubist shapes representing windows, walls and the landscape of a suburban living space. Blue and red-to-orange accents enliven the surface, suggesting both natural and artificial light.
Janet Culbertson’s exhibition, “Vital Signs,” sheds a very different kind of light on things.
“The exhibition speaks to our troubled relationship with our environment,” said South Street Gallery director Amy Worth, who timed the show to recognize Earth Day.
What’s toxic dazzles in Ms. Culbertson’s large, seductive landscapes. Devoid of sun and humanity, they seethe in the afterglow of Armageddon and shine with metallic glitter generously worked into lavish, densely packed collages.
Ms. Culbertson nostalgically remembers her childhood, when she canoed and hiked in Pennsylvania’s lush Allegheny Valley. But the hills harbored nasty neighbors: corporations that mined for ore and coal. They seeped neon orange ooze into pristine streams and chewed clean whole sides of mountains. That ravaged landscape etched a deep impression on the young woman, who became one of America’s first environmental artists.
She came of age in the late ’60s. Fueled by the feminist movement, she began to make her first eco-political images when the general public was only vaguely aware of the consequences of environmental pollution. Today, her prescient paintings and drawings are in many important collections, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
In this current exhibition, Ms. Culbertson updates themes for which she is well known, particularly her iconic billboard paintings. Originally these “paintings within paintings” featured billboards — with advertisements for beautiful American destinations — stuck in the rocky remains of landscapes reduced to rubble. In “Vanishing Butterflies,” the billboard is dwarfed by a phosphorescent sky. Now only a butterfly remains, impaled and bleeding its color on the billboard’s surface.
The figurative elements of her early works at times give way to pure abstraction, as in “Sunburst,” a collage that is all luscious texture, aglow with iridescent pigment. But get close: The sunburst is in fact a burst universe reduced to shards of glass and detritus, a landscape that cannot be glued back into wholeness.
Other works riff on industrial “parks,” those oxymoronic sites that attempt to conceal greedy corporate motives beneath a thin cover of manicured grass. The highways that enable the masses to drive to work at these campuses are the subjects of another series, “Paving America.” “Car Pool” is among a group of related canvases that depict these tarry stretches as labyrinths, clotted and clogged with shiny metallic cars going nowhere.
Ms. Culbertson knows how to make beautiful surfaces people love to look at. But she does it to force a confrontation with truths most would rather not see.
“I cannot escape the mostly disastrous news events,” she says. “As an artist I try to deal with them in paint.”
A second exhibition at South Street Gallery features works by a group of artists who have contributed environmentally related art for this show. They include Roz Dimon, Joseph Esser, Gina Gilmour, Anna Jurinich, Maureen Palmeri, Barbara Roux, David Slater and Lorena Salcedo-Watson.
East End Light/Vital Signs
‘East End Light’: juried art show at East End Arts Council, Riverhead, through June 3. Guest juror Glynis Berry or Art Sites Gallery. 727-0900.
‘Vital Signs 2011’: landscapes by Janet Culbertson at The South Street Gallery, Greenport. On view through May 30. 477-0021.