Josette Urso and Peter Schroth
The paintings of Josette Urso and Peter Schroth share similarities in process and subject matter; comparisons abound. But the subtle differences in sensibilities and the artist’s unique responses to the landscape result in a fascinating, intimate dialogue that unfolds between the works presented in this mini-retrospective.
For nearly ten years, both artists have been intensely involved in the practice of painting en plein air. The works by Urso and Schroth, who are married, have a freshness and authenticity that only can be produced “in the moment” as the artists experience a site and respond in paint with an unrehearsed immediacy. These artists often share subject matter—-Connecticut, Ireland, Maine, Arizona or Spain—-as they embark together on chance travel opportunities, sometimes through residencies, to often unfamiliar places, and attempt to understand the location through paint. Urso and Schroth complete each painting-—most often small scale—-in a single sitting, with results that range from the literal to the abstract.
The influences of artists who have worked in a similar vein often can be seen in Urso’s and Schroth’s paintings. In Urso’s small oil-on-panel paintings, for example Underbridge Blue I, (2004), the artist refers to the perceptual color and quick brushstroke of many Impressionist painters. Nature, seen and abstracted, is a familiar trope, and the influence of William Turner’s landscapes can be seen in works such as Schroth’s High Trees (2002). The earthy greens and ochres of John Constable’s palette appear frequently in both artists’ paintings. Contemporary artists working with similar subject matter, often painting en plein air, such as Robert Berlind and Rackstraw Downes, have clearly influenced Urso and Schroth. The lush, sensuous paint handling of artists in love with their medium brings to mind landscapes by Fairfield Porter. Yet, neither Urso nor Schroth slide into the realm of the all-too-familiar; both artists eke out a space for themselves using subject matter and a medium in which originality is hard-won.
Schroth’s paintings, more descriptive than Urso’s, examine the landscape from two distinct vantage points: a sublime vista or a miniscule detail. When the paintings are seen in sequence, the constantly shifting viewpoints provide a quasi-scientific portrait of nature. Although depicting different locations, Schroth’s paintings, seen together, become a generalized study of the elements of nature—-foliage, rocks, water, sky. Paintings like Farm to Sea (2002) and Patagonia Hills (1999) are renderings of a grand, wide-angle view of the land. Works such as Red Rock(2004) and Ground Cover(2003) move in close to the subject so that a small patch of leaves or a segment of a pond fills the canvas.
What makes Schroth’s paintings interesting is the scale: both the close-ups and the panoramas are, indiscriminately, on panels or paper ranging from 5 to 28 inches on the largest side. Ironically, details often are painted on a larger scale than the vistas. Furthermore, the paint handling and brushstroke are similar in both types of works. This interchangeability between the grand and the intimate reads almost like a conceptual project in which the idea of the landscape as subject matter overrides concerns with tradition; a large grey paint stroke can represent a pebble or a mountain, depending on its context.
A modest 14-by-8-inch painting, titled Blue Reflection (2002), shows a grey stone in water; it lacks any indicators of scale. The viewer’s reading of the object in the painting oscillates between the minute and the grandiose. Is this a careful study of a minuscule pebble in a shallow puddle, or is it a rendering of a mammoth boulder situated along a rocky coast? The insouciant title gives us no clue. Viewed alongside Schroth’s more traditional landscapes, like Farms From Hill 2 (2000) and Farms From Hill 3 (2002), both Lilliputian in size at 5 by 6 1/2 inches and 6 1/2 by 5 inches respectively, we question the distance represented in these scenes. In Farm From Hills 3, rendered more abstractly than some of Schroth’s paintings, it is not entirely clear if this is an aerial view of acres of land, or if we are seeing only a small portion of the landscape from an intimate angle. The constantly shifting viewpoints in these paintings cause us to question some of our expectations with which we approach the genre of landscape painting. Schroth’s first trip outdoors to paint was not until 1995, although he had been working with the subject of landscape for at least five years. He primarily had been a studio painter, making works that were highly engineered constructions that directly referenced the history of landscape painting. Schroth’s original intention in painting outdoors was to revitalize his approach to the subject; the practice of plein air painting evolved into his primary endeavor. The variety and unpredictability of the outcome, as noted by the artist, is the impetuous for his continued exploration of painting on site.
Urso, limiting most of her painting practice to making on-site works, also spends time in her studio creating circular collages out of source material she has been collecting for more than 20 years. While Urso’s paintings are spontaneous and organic, these collages are organized, meticulous and precise. In terms of painting, since the late 1990s, Urso has spent a few weeks each summer painting at a farm located in the Penobscot Bay region of Maine, consequently becoming more connected to the locale. Urso notes that her first residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, in a remote area along the coast of Ireland, changed her life as a painter; she was drawn to the otherworldly qualities of the place. The drama of the weather and the spirit and mood present in such a grand and scenic place inspired her unique approach to landscape painting.
Urso, less of a perceptual painter than Schroth, abstracts what she sees so that the overall composition becomes a record of the “heartbeat and buzz” of a place. These intuitive expressions provide enough information within them to indicate the subject: rocks, water, and trees. On the one hand, Urso’s paint handling and her suggestive use of color and pattern create works that are painterly miniature abstractions. On the other hand, Urso, almost magically, reveals enough specifics about the particular motif that her paintings become, not so much literal records, but evocative and intuitive suggestions of the locales.
The immediacy and the variety of Urso’s brush marks indicate a painter who is responding, almost manically, to a plethora of sensory information. Dabs of paint, with casual starfish-shaped lines on top, accompanied by dashes of blue and tan form a coastline in Star Sea, (2003). In Achilles Summit, (2002), muted yellows, browns and greens cover the entire panel, but for a triangle of ‘sky’ in the upper right-hand corner. Over the muted tones, unsystematic tendrils and trails of turquoise read like a maze of underground tunnels running through a mountain-like form.
Urso often pushes the color so that the paintings move from the observed to the imagined. In View Across the Rain (2002) a 5-by-7-inch oil-on-panel painting, acidic-green brush marks imply land and intense cobalt seems to stand in for the sea. Similarly in Near Falls 1 (2003), unnaturally violet water indicates to the viewer that for Urso, color is simply inspired by, not directly copied from, nature.
Urso’s interesting use of pattern in her paintings also is motivated by the feeling and energy of a place. In Starfish and Mussels (2003), wavy white lines, two-thirds of the way up the canvas, flatten out that segment of the composition and are repeated into the bluish ‘water’ above. The movement of the mark recalls the ebb and flow of the tides. In Dense Interior (2004), criss-crossed lines in an all-over composition represent trees, while blue dots, ovals and loose rectangles turn the forest into a seemingly random pattern. The ability to interpret her subject as nothing more than color, line and shape, while still providing visual clues that indicate the specifics of the scene, makes these paintings uncannily ‘real.’ Seeing many of Urso’s paintings together only underscores this reading.
Although Urso and Schroth share medium, scale and process, the results of each artist’s practice are inimitable. Each artist endeavors to push the limits of the genre of landscape painting. Seen together, their works, perhaps, ask the viewer to react to the subjects as the artist has—-with no preconceptions and in a very visceral and immediate manner. The small-scale of most of the works allows us to interact with the paintings intimately and quickly. The viewer cannot help but be drawn in by the lush paint handling, an index of the artist’s energy as they worked. The beauty of the landscape, seen, experienced, imagined and understood through paint, is, finally, what makes the work of Urso and Schroth so captivating.