Art Notes: Still Lifes Hold Deep Reservoir Of Emotion

  • Blueberries on White Cloth is part of an exhibit by Susan Walp.

  • Melon Sliced Open on a Black Plate with Knife is one of the works by Susan Walp now on display at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery at the Hopkins Center in Hanover.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2017 12:03:53 AM

The term "still life" conjures images of flowers, fruit, bottles, artfully arranged dead game or other objects that were popular in still life painting from the 17th century through the 20th century. Many still life genre paintings are forgettable, because they are mere records of a bouquet of flowers in a vase, or a glass pitcher filled with water.

Conversely, some of art's greatest paintings are still lifes created by art's greatest masters: Cezanne, Picasso, Rembrandt, Chardin, Velasquez, and Giorgio Morandi. Warhol's Campbell soup cans are also still lifes of a kind.

So, what separates a passable still life from one that is illuminated from within by an interior mystery?

The work of painter Susan Walp, whose paintings are on view in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, point to a central tension, or enigma, that exists within the most accomplished still lifes, the ones that bring you back time and again to study them.

Although the formal arrangement of objects is symmetrical and highly controlled, suggesting stasis, there is beneath the surface a deep reservoir of feeling and intellectual inquiry. 

As in the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the music of J.S. Bach, both of whom Walp counts as significant influences, the form is, in a sense, the meaning.

Seventeenth and 18th-century still lifes were, often, meditations on death and life's transience, sometimes called memento mori, or vanitas paintings.

Common motifs included the flower dropping its petals, ripe fruit on the verge of decay, the sputtering or recently extinguished candle, the half-peeled lemon, its bitter pith visible, the half-drunk glass of wine (or, perhaps it's a glass half-full). 

Viewers would have understood immediately what the visual metaphors meant: that life and death are the most profound of mysteries.

In an interview at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery, where 27 of her 9-inch by 9-inch paintings are being exhibited, along with some drawings, Walp alluded to the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, or  the pathos of things, and how we imbue them with meaning. It's precisely life's impermanence that gives it beauty. 

 Her paintings are not narratives, she said. "I'm just looking for things that look good," Walp said.

But there is in them a narrative of the artist's knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and when to keep still, when to keep silent.

She favors the square shape and the 9-inch dimension because, she said, "I like being close to the motif, so that limits the size."

Walp's paintings of radishes, grapefruit, blueberries, opened pea pods and halved melons, seeds still intact, sitting on plates or in bowls, have a deep stillness to them.

Some plates have old letters, the handwriting just visible, peeping out from underneath. Wine bottle corks, with part of the vineyard's name visible — gloria, vigil — sit at the bottom of the frame. Sometimes a knife is placed by a plate or breaks into the frame, introducing a disquieting note of unpredictability.

There's a reserve of emotion that emerges as you look closely at Walp's paintings, and also a sense of life happening outside the tight confines of the frame.

Walp, who has lived in Washington, Vt. since the mid-1980s, grew up in Allentown, Pa. She was always drawing as a child and began painting in earnest in the late 1960s, when she was simultaneously a student at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts and the New York Studio School.

Art ran in the family: her father and his mother painted on the weekends; her two brothers are artists. Her mother's side of the family was musical.

Walp begins each painting with the new moon, a practice that she learned from her Austrian grandmother, who began planting her garden with the new moon because the cycle of waxing and waning, the theory goes, favors planting different crops according to the phase of the moon. "It's a good time to start projects," Walp said.

Her studio faces north. She prefers the steady, more subdued light coming in to a more dramatic, intense southern exposure. The constancy of that light, she said, is, in a way, like meditation. "The idea is to eliminate distraction," she said.

She has a closet filled with objects that she puts to use in her paintings, and there are also various surfaces and tables she rotates in and out of her work. She gives fruits try-outs, she said, to get a feel for which fruit she wants to use, whether melon, grapefruit, pomelos, apples or blueberries.

Walp cited numerous influences, from Morandi to the filmmakers Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. As with Bach and Dickinson, their art shares a moral clarity and an invisible, elegant architecture.

You see this in Walp's work. Without an applied overlay of obvious emotion, Walp's technique, palette and discipline are what produce the mood, precision and rigor of each painting.

"I happen to be painting still lifes, but I don't think of myself as a still life painter," Walp said.

Walp’s work will be up at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery through April 30.

Ongoing

Arabella, Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media, including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

ArtisTree Gallery, South Pomfret. “MUD,” a show in which artists play variations on the theme of mud season, runs through May 6.

Center for the Arts, New London. The center shows work by Penny Koburger at the New London Inn, and pastels and oils by Gwen Nagel at the Lake Sunapee Bank on Main Street. In celebration of Youth Art Month, work by students from New London Elementary School also is on view at the Whipple Gallery in New London. All three shows end April 29.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. Lyme artist and printer Matt Brown exhibits “Woodblock Prints: Parts and Process” in the Betty Grant Gallery through May 31.

Hood Downtown, Hanover. “World Processor,” an exhibition of illuminated globes by Ingo Gunther, runs through May 28. In a related exhibition,“Mining Big Data: Luis Delgado-Qualtrough and Amy Balkin” continues in the Strauss Gallery, Hopkins Center, through April 30.

Howe Library, Hanover. Boston artist Tatiana Yanovskaya-Sink, who also spends time in the summer in the Sunapee area, exhibits paintings in the library’s Ledyard Gallery through May 3.

Kilton Library, West Lebanon. A selection of work from Mount Lebanon School students will be on view through May.

Long River Gallery and Gifts, White River Junction. Lyme artist Stephanie Reininger exhibits “Spring’s Flowers and Colors” through May 5. For more information go to tinyurl.com/firstfridaylongriver.

Main Street Museum, White River Junction. “Theoretical Clothing and The Shape of Being,” an exhibition of clothing design, photography and sculpture by H. Seano Whitecloud, ends Saturday. Also on Saturday, Whitecloud, along with other designers, will show his clothes as part of WRJ Fashion Weekend at the Engine Room in White River Junction.

Norwich Public Library. “Odanaksis: Plein Air Paintings,” an exhibition of work by artists Anne Webster Grant, Gail M. Barton, Helen Elder, Susan Rump, Linda Landry, Jo Tate and Becky Cook continues through May 26. See a related exhibition at the Zollikofer Gallery at the Hotel Coolidge (see below).

Osher at Dartmouth, Hanover. Lyme artist and illustrator Meg McLean exhibits her oil paintings in the show “Still Seeing Green” through April 27. The gallery is at the Osher office at 7 Lebanon Street, Hanover. Office hours are Monday through Thursday, 8:30 to 4:30 p.m., Fridays from 8:30 to 1 p.m.

Philip Read Memorial Library, Plainfield. Prints by Barnard artist Sabra Field are on view through July 1.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. The works of printmaker Lois Beatty and sculptor and wood worker Ria Blaas are on view, in addition to the jewelry of Stacy Hopkins.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The annual celebration of three-dimensional art generally ends when foliage season does, but 80 percent of the show is still on view. “Grounding,” a show of site-specific work curated by sculptors Jay Mead and Edythe Wright, is on view at the King Farm. For more information, go to sculpturefest.org.

Tunbridge Public Library. “Adventures in Weaving,” a show by Braintree, Vt. artist Susan Rockwell runs through May 19.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. “Collaborations,” a show of prints by Vicky Tomayko and Bert Yarborough, is up through April 30.

White River Gallery at BALE, South Royalton. “Expansions,” a show of paintings by Jasper Tomkins, is on view through April 30.

Zollikofer Gallery, Hotel Coolidge, White River Junction. “The Spirit of Odanaksis,” an exhibition of work by members of a group Upper Valley plein air painters, is on view through May 10.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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