Martin Garhart’s paintings and Jeb Schenck’s photographs, both on display at the Nicolaysen Art Museum through May 13, have at least one thing in common: they both invite viewers to look beyond the physical item and into the world.
In Garhart’s case, the world is imaginary, informed by personal and observed experiences. His paintings demonstrate long, loving familiarity with a paintbrush, and a deep understanding of how to wield it effectively to create layers and texture.
Schenck’s photographs, on the other hand, take viewers to places in the world that are hard to reach, or if they are accessible, capture them with light few see. The photographs are a testament to the effort of the artform, which requires knowledge of light and tools paired with endless patience to get just the right image.
All of Garhart’s paintings play on the idea of windows, which is strongly reinforced by the beautifully crafted frames. Each sumptuously colored painting is done in sections that are, one presumes, related but not the same.
“In the child possibility is a garden containing all flowers” is a three-part painting. The central figure is a young girl, wearing an oversized dress likely belonging to an adult woman. The elegant dark blue garment with red trim is offset by the obviously toy crown with a red stone. The girl is curiously royal in demeanor, an effect heightened by the simple background of gray walls and a wood floor. The portrait is flanked by two smaller panels of a different space. On the left we see a child’s mobile, a block and a card sticking out of an envelope taped to the wall. To the right, the panel shows a single white rose in a vase with tiny bees around it. The panels are united by a green ribbon which begins on the left and reappears on the right.
The portrait, like Garhart’s other paintings, reaches inside to touch memory: playing dress-up while also experimenting with identity, the toys bright and tactile for exploring the world, while the white rose on the other side provokes nostalgia, suggesting this time passes quickly. It is interesting that the painting has only one flower, a white rose, that most formal of flowers, while the title suggests that inside the girl lives the possibility of all flowers.
Two other paintings consider the heart. “The Quiet Heart” features a large painting of a lonely tree under a moon and a midnight blue sky. Below it there are three small windows. The left panel shows two apples on a branch, both with bites flashing white in the darkness. In the middle, a woman with her head bent to the tree trunk. On the right, there are hearts floating on a twilight sky background with the title written in.
Like the portrait of the child, the painting invites multiple interpretations. On the one hand is the lonely landscape, richly colored and textured even in the darkness: balm, or maybe loneliness, for the heart. But the windows suggest a deeper meaning, referring to the old story of Eve eating the apple of knowledge. And though we do not see a man in the painting, there are two apples in the first panel, and both have large bites taken from them.
The seductively dressed woman in the second small panel leans against the tree trunk, perhaps regretting her action already, or just taking in knowledge, which might break the quiet of the heart. The third small panel reminds us that the heart is at the root of everything.
“It is the night that holds the secrets of the heart” pairs with “The Quiet Heart.” In it, we see a nude woman turned away, as if to walk toward the windows dimly seen in the back of the painting to look into the dark night. This painting, like the others, features complex framing. In the center, the nude is framed as in a tall window. Around that window, the canvas is also painted night dark with a long-stemmed red rose rising from a tiny gold heart holding it like an anchor. This time the nude suggests intimacy, and love, with hearts worked quietly into the background. And yet the red rose rises, taking with it the locket sized gold heart.
Garhart likes to use text in his paintings, and each of the paintings in this show has the title embedded into it in some way. He says that “Technically, the paintings are my exploration of visual, and to a lesser extent, verbal language.” The curatorial statement points out that the written word can, itself, be art, and Garhart’s use of the words, often in ornate lettering, illustrate that. More, they allow the painting to stand on its own, with cryptic, almost subconscious, direction toward understanding the larger language of the painting.
Garhart’s paintings — painted realism with a fantastic edge, images of the mind — contrast beautifully with Schenck’s photographs in Chasing Light. The landscapes from diverse locations — Iceland, Argentina, Colorado, Peru, Wyoming — all share the effort to capture light just right so that familiar sights take on an otherworldly sense, while remote landscapes become knowable.
Schenck captures the darkness of the Skatafell waterfall in Iceland against the sky and the glacier it springs from in three stunning images that illustrate both the grandeur and the harshness of the landscape. “Falls and Columns” shows the rock in an almost decorative arrangement of straight lines with a shingled feel near the top overlaid by the lacy water falling over it. I thought about a shingled house with lacy curtains as I looked at it.
“The Great Dunes” are a study in light and shadow with clouds scudding above them. The pattern of light and shadow is reminiscent of waves. The darkness and light seem to be rolling over each other, or perhaps echoing the timeless daily play between day and night.
Both artists observe the details of experience and render them exquisitely while also retaining larger concepts and ideas that make us think about the world around us.
Martin John Garhart’s Seen and Said is on display in the Ptasynski Gallery; Jeb Schenck’s Chasing Light is in the Mary Durham and Bordewick galleries. Both shows can be seen at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper through May 13, 2017.
Camellia El-Antably is a visual artist and co-founder of Clay Paper Scissors Gallery & Studio (www.claypaperscissors.com) in Cheyenne. She curates the Studio Wyoming Review.