A Rich Semi-Reality: Eleanor Grace Miller’s Still Life Paintings

If Eleanor Grace Miller’s oil-on-board still life paintings of fabric and solid objects were photographs, the camera would have to be suspended in perpendicular alignment from the ceiling – and the lens would have to stay open for a long, long time. So dark and rich are Miller’s colors, that an almost surreal sense of depth infuses each carefully-arranged scene.

Miller’s work was lately on view at the wonderful Garrison Art Center, which backs up to the icy Hudson River in Putnam County just across from West Point; the show, with Hudson Valley painter Donald Alter, closed today.

Although realistic and fully representational, these are views that do not exist in everyday life – indeed, they are created by the painter herself; Miller has designed some of the patterns on the pottery and material in the paintings. So each view is not merely a collection of items interpreted by the artist – the still life itself is the creation. Each painting seems an execution of the original vision of color, design, and assembly.

The dominant colors are blacks and reds and gold, with bowls and fruit serving as the three-dimensional focal points for swaths of brilliant fabric, some of it designed by the artist specifically for the painting. The result is brilliant – a golden view at a simple world.

The object is a bright and clear vision. As Miller says in her exhibit statement with a quick slash of wit: “I dislike beige. I find it arbitrary: I like the clarity of color.”

He is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind

With a crowd of family in tow in a sea of bustling fine art tourism, I took in the astounding Joseph Mallord William Turner retrospective at the Met last week, jostling through the headphone-wearers to gaze at a few of the finer works at some small length. Turner was an artist of empire, a prolific careerist who grew up as the son of a barber and wigmaker in London and set his sites on becoming the acknowledged heir to Europe’s great classicists. Yet his toil over a very long career spanned the tail end of the enlightenment, ignited as war swept the western world, and lasted long after, well into the industrial spread of the 19th century. And although Turner aimed for classical landscape fame, his later worked presaged expressionism in their layering of color and homage to light.

What a talent, and what range as well. There are the great historic paintings, of course – the Trafalgar images, The Field of Waterloo, and his near-journalistic work covering the great fire that destroyed the parliamentary campus in London in 1834. There are classical landscapes in strict diagrammatic patterns, and classical scenes. But there were two groups that stood out as favorites. One comprised everyday scenes of life in Turner’s times – times that also inspired the writing of a range of my favorite writers, from Austen and Dickens to the brilliant maritime series of Patrick O’Brian. The other was the later work, painted when Turner’s eyes were failing him, works that critics of the day dismissed as “the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand.”

I stood longest before Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, exhibited by Turner in 1835 and on loan from the National Gallery, where I’d seen it before. It is a media-sized oil painting of the waterfront at Newcastle, a portrait of every day toil in small boats and small ships. The sky is moonlit, almost like day, and the light and clouds form a sort of visual tunnel toward open water. The ships have that classic Turner lyric of beauty discovered in hull and sail, but it’s no longer the age of Napoleon – or the age of pure sail, either. Coal feeds steamship boilers, ships move under power, and the factories are open. There is work to be done even at midnight. Smoke sends its industrial signal into that brilliant sky, obscuring some masts.

You think: it would be the 1960s before England’s skies grew cleaner again. The coal-powered London fog of Sherlock Holmes was a wisp in Turner’s painting, but it was beginning to swirl. Jane Austen is dead, Charles Dickens had just started his journalistic career, and Wellington was his dotage. Victoria was a princess yet to ascend, Darwin was in the Galapagos, and on these shores, Texas won its independence and Mark Twain was born. I love images like this that blend a “wonderful range of mind” like Turner’s – as famously described by his rival John Constable – with a clear turn of history. Sometimes you can see so much, and come away the better for it.

Highly recommended: J.M.W. Turner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through September 21, 2008.

Defending Edward Hopper

It’s not that Holland Cotter is routinely deranged; the Times art critics wrote a wonderful piece debunking the common myths surrounding Islamic art a while back, and maintains a healthy distrust of the invesstment-fueled “art market” as a driver of real taste and value. No, Cotter is solid. He did, however, become conspicuously unhinged and scatter his critical parts like some culturally-disjointed Mr. Potato Head all over the Times‘ art section last Friday.

Holland Cotter, it seems, reveres not the accomplishments of Edward Hopper.

Hopper Tourist Rooms

Ostensibly, Cotter was criticizing a retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, but his real target was Hopper’s reputation as a master of American art. Cotter attempts to tear Hopper down, remove that master tag, and relegate him to the dreaded status of “clever.”

To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot — no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on.

Get the hint? Hopper was “shrewd” and did a lot with a little talent, by using cinematic suspense; he borrowed the flourishes of others like some velvet-Elvis-painting crafts show salesman moving twenty-dollar units out of the back of his minivan at the flea market. Sniff-sniff, not real art at all.

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