Editor's note: The following essay was written by, and is reprinted with permission of, Robert L. Kurtz. The essay is featured in the catalogue for the exhibition "Regions of Light: Paintings, Prints & Drawings by Peter Sculthorpe," which appeared at The Berman Museum of Art from September 17 through November 7, 1999. The ISBN number for the illustrated catalogue is 1-889136-08-5. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or catalogue, please contact The Berman Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Regions of Light: Paintings, Prints & Drawings by Peter Sculthorpe
by Robert L. Kurtz
Peter Sculthorpe's genius lies in his ability to freshly interpret the beauty of the American landscape and our relationship to it, once even referring to himself as."A chronicler...of the times, (of) what:s on the face of the earth right now." His buildings and fields are the brick and mortar of his artwork; he is as much the architect, the builder, of his works as he is the painter. Speaking about a cluster of buildings in one of his watercolors. but just as easily speaking for the majority of the oeuvre, the artist has said, "They've (the buildings) been taken totally out of context, I've taken the shapes of the buildings and built a story around them..."
Sculthorpe's paintings do not relate a story in the manner of an illustrator. The elements in Sculthorpe's work combine to make a statement whose impact is overall and that relationship, the contract, between nature and man, the balance of aesthetics and life that, as the artist has discovered in his own existence, can be struck and maintained.
Sculthorpe's gritty self-discipline has enabled him to not fall prey, as many artists have, to the serene landscape of Chester County, Pennsylvania. His vision always brings a freshness. a newness to each scene; we look at each creation as a wayfarer happening upon a resplendent view for the first time. His storytelling has the ring of veracity for many reasons, not the least of which is his commanding ability with brush and pencil.
Beyond that. his work succeeds because the artist approaches his subject with great reverence, and he infuses his work with an innate knowledge of his subject. Sculthorpe has traversed these lands time and again in every season of the year and in all weather; he has made himself an authority on the play of light on these hills and valleys. He has harvested the grains in the fields he paints and he has built walls akin to those in his works. He brings a level of respect to the meadows and valleys that informs the work and does not allow undue emotion to filter in.
A quiet story unfolds in the beautiful 1988 watercolor Garden in Autumn. The painting is bisected horizontally via a magnificent stone wall topped by a white wooden fence. In the upper register the forest is in the full throes of autumnal glory and defoliation. The wall of leaves is a myriad of browns and tans, with the entire ensemble anchored by the massive, vertical trunks of the tree placed at center. Contrasting dramatically with this unrestrained background is the discipline placed on the land by man in the form of the well-tended garden, here being prepared for the coming year by its conscientious steward.
Turbulence may reign beyond, but all is order here, as the detritus of the late summer crop is burned or carted away. A series of furrows, all that remains from earlier plantings, is still in evidence, while bean poles and tomato stakes rest from their labors in an orderly row against the stone shed inside which garden tools are visible. This is a Sculthorpean symbiotic utopia; man living lightly on the land, nurturing it as it in turn nurtures him. Man and the land being a recurring theme, throughout Sculthorpe's work, it is nonetheless noted that the human form is absent in the vast majority of his works. In excluding individuals from his images, the artist is emphasizing the importance of nature in the equation. One must wonder how much less an impact the story would carry were it not for Sculthorpe's penetrating attention to detail. The right and left sides of the stone wall project toward the viewer and bestow an almost theatrical presence to the foreground space: it nearly seems we have chanced upon a performance in progress. The garden is inhabited sparingly by a very few objects, most notably the red and the white wheelbarrows, reversed and set at varying angles one from the other. Closer inspection reveals that they are also - amazing, this intricacy of observation - of different design; the rear stave of the white barrow is one piece with tile rear leg, while the rear stave and leg of the red one are two separate pieces; the white barrow's legs, sides, back, and handle are uniformly gentle, hand-formed curves, while the red one is all straight lines and sharp angles.
Is this not an overload of information? How much does it matter if two wheelbarrows are the same design or not? The answers are no, and plenty. No, we are not witnessing a detail-incensed artist in overdrive; he paints what he sees and is committed to it. And plenty, because even such small details convey messages - tell stories - to the viewer. A lifetime of farming will produce a myriad of tools from a myriad of sources. Recognition of such only adds to the veracity of the story. And Sculthorpe knows this.
Not enough has been written on this artist's innate sense of design. A masterwork from 1988 is the small oil on canvas Primitive Design. A seemingly simple painting of a barn detail becomes an intricate study of space, geometry, and light. The work depicts a small section of an aging cantilevered barn. The space is very shallow and very precisely defined, somewhat atypical although not unknown, in Sculthorpe's work. It is delineated by two parallel barn walls, which are connected by hand-hewn joists visible only slightly in deep shadow, and also by the primary vertical element in the work, the singular white post surmounted with diagonal braces and slightly off center in the foreground, supported by a large concrete pier. The area is further described by the winter morning light, its warmth suffused into the image in browns and tans, and by the Y-shaped column's shadow, bending as it falls across the exterior feed bin. The space extends backwards into the dark interior of the barn, the opening very nearly the perfect center of the work and neatly countered by its adjoining diagonally-braced door. The small window at right reflects the morning light off the glass and, though quite small, holds forth starkly and significantly amidst the shadows. The whole work is tied together expertly by a series of subtly repeating lines occurring throughout; the string of vertical lines comprising the battens at top are echoed below in the wide planks of the barn door, themselves checked by the horizontal boards which make up the feed bin. Providing a final balance to this study in line and architecture, the artist grounds it all in the midst of a glorious, painterly melange of mud and snow.
Peter Sculthorpe has proven his unique versatility in many
of his works. One of the most successful is the recent Murder of Crows
II, a 1999 watercolor. The artist traditionally has had no qualms about
incorporating a large retinue of elements into his paintings, but a considerable
paring down takes place in this work, which depicts an enormous gum tree
splayed against a brilliant winter sunset, as a flock (the 'murder') of
crows wing their way across the image. The tree is in near-total silhouette,
with only a hint of light at the base delineating its girth. Sculthorpe
has used trees in many works in the past as an integrated part of a whole
- witness his seminal Hilltop Farm - but in this instance he brings
to the fore, as the overwhelming focus the lone, all encompassing gum, whose
outermost branches pierce the sides and top of the image. The outline of
the tree is intricately circumscribed by the magnificent sky, easily Sculthorpe's
finest, whose central magenta dissolves into bright yellow below and brooding
blues above. The staccato line of crows threads its way across the work,
each one - whether flying or gliding - is individually realized, offsetting
the static tree and wall with a dramatic element of animation. The backlighting
of the stone wall reveals various minute crannies, visible as spots of light
among the dark stones, forming an interesting visual opposite to the black
forms of the
crows across the yellow sky. The wall effectively halts the progress of the sunlight onto the snow-dappled foreground, throwing it into deep shadow and making it a counterpart to the dark blue sky at top.
In this work Sculthorpe again presents us with a dialogue on man and nature. Walls and fences have appeared in paintings for nearly as long as they have defined properties. But this stone wall, whose many gaps portend coming ruin, and this exhausted gate, when viewed against the majesty of sky, tree, and flight, may be construed as man's impotent attempt at permanence. Man's systems fail; Nature is immutable. In this reading of his landscapes as memento mori, we find Sculthorpe at his most spiritual, his most poetic.
Finis coronat opus
I have heard it said that Peter Sculthorpe's work
carries one back to simpler, less complicated
times, that it hearkens us back to happier
generations, long past. I'm sorry, but I don't find this
the case at all; actually, I think quite the opposite.
these are not paintings imbued with lamentation
and longing for lost days: the artist respects his
subjects far too highly to reduce them to
sentimentality. These works are not about then;
these works are all about now, about living today.
These are modern works by a modern sensibility,
choosing to depict what he wishes in the way that
he wishes, which he has done, and continues to
do, quite magnificently.
About the author
Robert L. Kurtz was, at the time of authoring the above essay, Curator of Exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art.
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