Sunday, June 24, 2018

Coulter/Szmagaj In Conversation at James Madison University Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art

Ever since I learned about this show, I have been looking forward to seeing it. For one, getting to see a show by a couple of very serious painters is a rare event in this day and age. Even on this past Thursday at a meeting, I was once again reminded by an art historian from King University that painting is dead and that every venue on the planet is embracing video and installation art. So, fortunately, The Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Arts at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia found room in its brief summer schedule for a couple of remaining painters who also happen to be two powerful teachers who critically challenged my own painting attempts while pursuing an MFA there.

To start out, nothing about these two painters, Ken Szmagaj and Jerry Coulter is even getting close to being dead. I’m personally on the brink of turning 60 and these were two of my teachers, so Szmagaj must be somewhere in his 70s and Coulter is in his early 80s; yet, their work, some of it created two decades ago, and much of it created in the last year, still reveals paths of intense critical and creative inquiry. I am not seeing some last gasp - “oh give them a final resting show - they were fine professors”  - no, I’m seeing a couple of painters who are still inventing; I still draw inspiration from their attitudes.

Now before you think I have missed the concept of this exhibit, it is called “In Conversation” and sure enough, whether it was self curated by the two artists, or perhaps guided by a curator, everything in the exhibit features paired or juxtaposed works that at least relate formally. This opens a dialogue of comparison and contrast between two painters who led the painting side of JMU’s art department for decades.

In Coulter’s work, there is a tension between the figuration, draftsmanship, perceptual accuracy, and pursuit of beauty with his larger modernist concerns of formal arrangement/composition. Technically, Coulter is comfortable with oil paint glazing over carefully constructed layers of drywall compound. In other cases, whether it be a bird or that perfect female figure, his draftsmanship is carefully rendered over a toned ground that disappears once it approaches the external edge of the paper. In every case, I am reminded that Coulter’s work is a construct of artifice, not an illusional Renaissance window.

Szmagaj, at first glance is as playful as his artist statement indicates. Staying open to possibilities, inventions and surprises are his trademarks. Sure enough, there is a signature quality in his work that borders on magic. How can all of these small shapes that rarely overlap even cohere? Given all of the modernist abstraction that has preceded him, how can his work still have a signature voice to it?  Incorporating fragmentary particles and objects from his studio in austere compositions adds an air of personal authenticity to the work. This work initially strikes me as completely non-objective until I ocassionally realize that there is a "real object" included in the composition.

Both of these artists serve up reminders that painting is still a thoughtful enterprise and using elements sparingly can pack a punch. Careful color choices and color restriction are paramount. In dialogue with one another, Szmagaj and Coulter both demonstrate the effectiveness of black and also, white. Each of these artists finds a way to get viewers to consider the relationships between what is real and what is abstract. The austerity and rigor of their work reinforces that economy can speak volumes. Lastly, another takeaway from the show is that ambition and professionalism are still relevant additions to the final delivery.

(The exhibit at Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art at James Madison University ran from 03 May to 23 June 2018 - I was fortunate to view it on its final day)

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