REVIEW: Frances Wells and Kate Emlen at BigTown Gallery in Rochester

This review was first published in the March 24 issue of the Randolph Herald.

Maine Coast to the Hudson River to Rochester, Vermont

by Dian Parker

Landscape painting in oils has a long tradition in America. One of the most famous groups is the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century American art movement of landscape painters whose vision was influenced by romanticism. Their zeitgeist was to emphasize aesthetics, an appreciation of beauty and emotions – a reaction contrary to the celebration of the machine in their day, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. These artists lived and worked alongside the grand Hudson, attempting to replicate the beauty and majesty of this river.

Today, we have Frances Wells painting the Hudson River in all its glory, as represented by her work currently showing at the Big Town Gallery. Her palette is more subdued than the old painters, displaying an impressionistic view in muted tones. Painting on panel board, she dispenses with the heavy gold ornate frames of yore and chooses to outline each painting with a delicate gold trim which serves as an understated border for her work. The result is a mysterious blend of realism and impressionism. Moody woodlands, dreamy marshes, or a lush autumn afternoon. Her paintings are peaceful and graceful meditations, slowing the viewer down to appreciate the beauty and grand scope of the river, mountains, a barn, or a pasture at dusk.

One painting, Grove of Trees (pictured), 20" x 36", portrays a field with a line of trees in the distance. The light is tranquil, perhaps a sunset, glowing in the distance. The grass is long and flowing. Perhaps the day is humid, as is so often the case during summer in the Hudson River valley. Hook Mountain, Tappan Zee, 14 3/4" x 23 3/4" has the quality of a dream: the mountain casting a misty reflection in the river, the soft turquoise of the water with the dusky chalk-like look of pastels. Even though her paintings are small, these are big landscapes. Wells said of her work, “Painting navigates me with myself.” It is an inward journey of outer beauty, reflecting her generous and loving view of nature, which takes us inside her view.

The second artist in the current show at Big Town is Kate Emlen, another landscape oil painter, altogether different in feeling, color and tone. Her paintings come out to you, bold and forceful, full of movement. Emlen paints the Maine Coast. Big trees, rivers and glens. She doesn’t try to realistically paint the landscape; instead she manages to get you to live inside it, to feel the light on your skin, the texture of the bark, the sweep of the sea. One painting, Spring Woods II, oil on canvas, 20" x 16", shows a grove of small trees with sunlight angling through the trees. Try looking at the painting from afar, at an angle, and see how expertly she slants the light onto the blue forest floor. Another is Spring Thaw (pictured), 36" x 36", also showing trees in a forest, except you aren’t certain if it is mist hovering around the base of the trees or if it is late winter snow. Emlen’s landscapes evoke the sensation of being right there, on the soggy soil, feeling the cool air and smelling the sap on the rise.

Morning, 42" x 47", is a large landscape that greets you when you first enter the gallery. It is a view from the sea looking at the distinctive rocks of Maine along the shore, the great stones reflecting in the water, a mirage of color. A pine tree towers above and the sky is a delicate blue. Emlen said, “I like painting large. It is a physical activity, like running a mile.” She also likes painting the same subject over and over to “get it in my bones”. Her paintings get into our bones too. They sweep and curl, filled with movement and light.

The current show of these two dynamic painters runs through May 1. Their pairing is wonderful -- Wells’ meditative and subtle; Emlen’s dashing and active. What rich ways to capture the changing seasons in such diverse ways. This show is a perfect springtime excursion.

Frances Wells, Grove of Trees, 2010, oil on panel, 20" x 36"
Kate Emlen, Spring Thaw, 2006, 36" x 36", oil on canvas

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