“Body and Soul”, Andrew Watel, 2022, Pastel on paper, 60″ x45″
In their concurrent exhibitions at the Sherry Leedy Gallery, three artists of very different work manage to strike a similar chord – that of memory and its felt experiences.
Andrew Watel’s “Things” exhibition is an astonishing testimony to the artist’s mastery of his favorite medium, pastel. He pushes the particular characteristics of this chalky material to the maximum, and in the end his works arouse mental states bordering on the mystical.
Now a resident of Kansas City, this veteran artist, who earned his MFA from Yale in 1983 and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design from 2004 to 2017, works on a large scale, for pastel, which sometimes reaches 60 x 45 inches. . The penumbra of his representations draws the viewer through what is practically a portal, in which anonymous and mundane objects such as a spring, an inner tube or a metal fan – chosen for “their shape, their color and their geometry”, he says – looks at us in silence.
Each of his subjects is placed in the center of the page, giving it an iconic force. Then he draws it and erases it until we are finally left with a dematerialized reminder of something we know but can barely recognize, much like memories that fade over time.
Claire McConaughy’s brushed oil paintings of landscapes and birds are like flashbacks to places and natural phenomena that feel like psychic imprints left by a vibrant spring day. They are inspired by McConaughy’s walks in the woods of his Pennsylvania farm.
McConaughy’s studio is in Brooklyn, where she sifts through the various sketches and photos she took to arrive at her results.
With their heightened intensity of color and flamboyant brushstrokes, his nature scenes, for this viewer, vividly recognize the pure joy that the natural world provides, perhaps more so than ever in the past two difficult years. But they are more than that.
“It’s a landscape,” the artist writes of his paintings, “but I hope there is metaphor, sensory feeling, and other relationships in the work.” Ultimately, McConaughy’s art functions more as a meditation than a depiction of a particular place.
As Barbara O’Brien writes in her insightful synopsis of the artist’s works: “To describe the subject of a McConaughy painting, it doesn’t seem quite right to use a name – sky, lake, shore or horizon – as the subject of the painting, although we can, looking closely, see it all things. What is most clearly seen and experienced are the painter’s observations; the memory of this experience. . .”
Memory and the history of personal objects are at the center of Tilly Woodward’s 22 small paintings in “Small Stories”. Woodward, who earned a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from the University of Kansas, is currently Curator of University and Community Outreach at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“There are so many uncertain things in the world,” she writes, “I find it comforting to take the time to clearly see one thing, or part of one thing clearly, each day. . . The things I paint are symbolic of my life and loaded with meaning. This explains why the insects, nests and other mementos that Woodward painstakingly reproduces in beautiful jewel-like colors seem frozen, as if they last for eternity.
Trompe-l’œil paintings have a significant profile in American art, with artists such as William Harnett and John Peto in the 19th century, to Chuck Close and Jasper Johns in the contemporary art world, delving into the intricacies like this for a variety of conceptual and decorative reasons. Woodward’s paintings, mostly oils on paper on panel, have a beauty and mystery of their own. Her depictions of nests are delicate and exquisite, and the one hand anatomical portrait she does, “Astrid: Words Are Hard,” is compelling. His art hurts us for the real world.
One of art’s many values is its ability to challenge and save memories, and the three artists above show us exactly how to do just that.
“Andrew Watel: Things,” “Paintings by Claire McConaughy,” “Small Stories by Tilly Woodward” continues through August 20 at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, 816.221.2626 or www.sherryleedy.com.