BUTLER INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN ART
The Midyear is enhanced by the respect shown to local artists.
By ROB KURTZ
Looking for respite from the dog days of summer? Need a break but can't swing the Hamptons? Then consider the National Midyear Exhibition now under way at the Butler Institute of American Art.
In its 69th year, the Midyear consistently brings together the finest, (mostly) realist painters in the country for an annual summit on the state of American painting.
Entrants are selected each year by a knowledgeable art world professional, ensuring a quality exhibition. This year's show is juried by art historian Joseph Czestochowski, who pared 1,200 hopefuls down to 93 -- in effect rejecting 11 works for every one included. Seven works were invited.
One long-standing hallmark of the Midyear Show has been its intelligent, deft installation. A sensitive arrangement of works offers viewers an easy ability in comparing and contrasting paintings of like or disparate themes and aesthetics. This Midyear is no exception.
One brief section in the show's center gallery presents a tier of small, exquisite landscapes which, in their interaction, compose a beguiling little enclave all their own.
David Reed of Asheville, Ohio, created the center acrylic on canvas work called Twilight, Pickaway County. The bottom third of this horizontal work focuses on a large, open field, bordered by barns and silos at the far right and the glimmering of a stream sluicing across the left corner. As is also the case in many Dutch landscapes, the heavens here dominate the painting. This sky is painted a striking blue, its scattered, drifting clouds offering the only hint of movement.
To its left is a jewel-like January scene, Winter Plain II by Melanie McGraw of West Chatham, Mass. The twilight sky glows a mesmerizing fusion of pinks and purples, the horizon line broken by the leafless up-reaching branches of a young sapling. Amazing that so warm a sky can denote such a cold vista.
To the right, the spectacular Apple Valley region of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains comes to life in Barrie Vance's autumnal Indian Old Fields. From a hilltop vantage point which looks down into the valley, the viewer's gaze settles quickly on the brace of hunters descending the foreground tractor path. The fields of dry standing corn morph into enormous stepping-stones, leading the eye across the valley floor to the ascending slopes beyond. Barrie remarkably weaves together the myriad elements of a farming community into a very tiny work and yet maintains a sense of airy openness.
Portraiture, a recurring Midyear theme, represents some of the finest paintings in this show. In The Horseman, Brad Lethaby of Erie, Pa., presents a carousel horse carver absorbed in the final touches of creating the animal's mane. The lighting effect is impressive here, as the carver's hands, hat, and the horizontal horse are brightly lighted via the bank of windows at left. This is juxtaposed by a strong secondary light source descending from the upper right and warmly illuminating his face. There seems to be a guileful bid at levity here, as the horse's gaping mouth appears to laugh in response to the artisan's tickling.
Tricia Kaman of Chagrin Falls achieves an altogether different effect in Looking Toward the Light. A recumbent female figure gazes off into the distance, oblivious to the viewer. Lost in thought, her countenance reflects the inrush of sudden revelation -- hence the title -- as though an irrevocable juncture in her life has arrived. Color plays a masterful role here as the browns, yellows and blues of the bedspread and the pinks of the pillows form an effective counterpoint to the black void of her sweater and also highlight her penetrating green eyes.
A sense of fun
Easily one of the most fun works in the entire show is Beijing Garden by Joan McKee of Bowling Green, Ohio. This shaped painting on board places the viewer inside a Chinese home, looking out a double-paneled window onto a serene domestic garden extending to the intense Oriental red of the home beyond. With the left window panel fully open and a cricket crouching on the ledge, the wonderful result is to entice the viewer deeper into the scene.
In testimony to the artistic legacy of our region, a number of local artists have works in this year's show. Two standouts are Tom McNickle's River Mist, a bedazzling display of virtuoso brushwork, wherein the artist deftly depicts an expanse of forest trees and their abstracted reflection separated by an ethereal cloud of vapor rising from the water.
Also, don't miss Jim Pernotto's Event Horizon, a topsy-turvy jumble of colors in which a minute central figure floats precariously between spinning nebula above and swirling whirlpool below, his foothold -- not to mention future -- out of his control. Respect for local talent in a show of national scope is not only another admirable trait of the Midyear, but more importantly of The Butler itself. This institution's dedication to and nurturing of its local art scene, especially in the past quarter-century, is unmatched by any other major art museum in America, and we should all be justly proud of it.
From palm trees to cornfields, Parisian courtyards to Midwestern rooftops, this Midyear Show will surprise and delight at every turn. The 69th National Midyear Exhibition runs through Sunday, Aug. 21. Butler hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Wednesdays until 8), and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays.