Pastelist Diane Newton and oil painter Patty Porter are long-time artistic collaborators. Focusing on landscapes done in a broadly “realist” vein, “Diaries” is their second show together at the State of the Art Gallery. (Their previous one ran two Octobers ago; the current one runs through the 27.) Intended as visual journals, the exhibition illustrates the artists’ divergent paths: Newton’s increasingly urban and streetside, Porter’s more rural and bucolic.
Newton, who splits her time between Ithaca and Quincy, Massachusetts, is one of the cooperative’s most engaging artists. Worked at evident length over black paper, her three large pastels here combine material sensuality with a rough, unsentimental view of her natural and man-made settings. They’re the show’s richest works and one longs to see more of them.
Rendered in austere blacks, grays, and browns, “Owyn and Olive” shows two dogs outside the artist’s Cayuga Heights home. One climbs upon a constructed frame that provides a sharp perspectival accent to the piece’s otherwise shallow depth. In the distance, through bare tree trunks, is Cayuga Lake and far shoreside. Switched upright and adding bright and pale pink, blue, and green, “Suspect Terrain” seems a distant cousin to Cézanne’s discombobulated quarry rock faces.
Done on two conjoined sheets, the panoramic “Mayerthorpe, Alberta” is even richer. Reflecting the artist’s extensive car travels, it divides evenly along a distant horizon: mostly flat but occasionally punctuated by mostly minuscule streetlights, trees and banal roadside architecture. The foreground is dominated by a large dirt parking lot marked with gestural sweeps. Above, contrastingly sweet: a gently clouded sky.
Taking inspiration from her sixties art student days, Newton has recently exhibited looser, more abstract and expressionist work. Still on paper and using charcoal, sometimes with a limited set of pastels, her figure drawings and abstractions remain somewhat an odd fit.
Done in the company of a Boston figure drawing group, her male nudes here are among the more compelling of these. Hung together, “Figures/Flipped” and “Red and Blue” take a sequential approach, dividing single sheets into top and bottom sections. Rendered in rapid strokes of charcoal and cyan and red pastels, a male figure, sometimes blindfolded, enacts a series of mostly dynamic postures. In black-and-white, “Figure I” and “Figure II” capture quick poses drawn overlapping one another.
Three abstractions, eccentrically presented in separate but conjoined frames, come from the same group sessions—albeit with the model absconded. They add yellow and pink as well as drippy, ink-like washes.
Newton has long used a camera for her work. Her several small photographs here hearken back to Abstract Expressionism—via the detail photography of Aaron Siskind—while adding an interesting mix of neutral tones with bright, unexpected accents.
I’ve always had the sense of Porter as a gifted amateur and this exhibition mostly confirms that. It’s a respectable thing to be, although one might wish for an artist of her experience to reach harder beyond the familiar nature painter modes on ample display here. Combining areas painted in a (literally and metaphorically) flat manner with denser stroked accents, her canvases lack the painterly intelligence of Newton’s best pieces.
A handful of Porter’s paintings indicate more ambitious possibilities. To good effect, “Goldenrod – Agard Road” allows staccato impressionism to take over from her more evenly filled areas. Less enticingly rendered, “Willow Way – Cornell Botanical Gardens” is nonetheless an ambitious composition: an elevated perspective looking down on a skinny creek snaking its way through dense and diverse flora with a more bland, grassy landscape in the distant upper right.
The tall “Monkey Run Red” and the smaller “Annie in the Rain” feature figures, seen from behind, seemingly leading us down narrow paths and into the woods. Better painted and narratively engaging, the two are highlights.
It would be interesting to see a solo show from Newton at the gallery. Alternatively, a pairing with some other SOAG member might shed more light on her deeply thoughtful work: perhaps with the meticulously detailed pastels of Ed Brothers or the quotidian street photographs of Harry Littell. As it is “Diaries” feels like something of a lost opportunity—and an indication of the limits of the gallery’s group-centric approach, which often appears to favor the competent and ordinary over the truly arresting.