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Randall Exon: A Quiet Light


Acclaimed Philadelphia-area painter Randall Exon is the subject of a special solo exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum, which opened January 11, 2003. Randall Exon. A Quiet Light features more than 35 works by the painter, whose landscapes, interiors, and still lifes have been described as "moody", "passionate" and "evocative." The exhibition runs through April 27, 2003. It is part of an ongoing series that highlights contemporary masters of landscape painting from the Philadelphia region. (left: Randall Exon, Hot and Cold, 2000, 48 x 68 inches [diptych], oil on linen, Private Collection)

In his paintings, which have centered on the landscape and the figure in landscape, Exon explores the ways in which memory and imagination inform us about the land. "My desire to make paintings has always come from my intense fascination with the land and the evocative effects of light," he says. His "realism" tends toward evocation, rather than accuracy, as its primary goal.

Many of Exon's paintings are fictions made up entirely from personal experience and memory, a combination of past and present impressions. He is interested in creating the kind of scene that, as he says, "doesn't really exist outside my painting." (right: Randall Exon, White Barn, 1990, 19 1/2 x 24 inches, oil on board, Private Collection)

Born in South Dakota and raised in Kansas and Oregon, Exon received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Washburn University in 1978 and later attended the University of Iowa, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1982. He currently serves as Professor of Studio Art at Swarthmore College, where he has taught for sixteen years.

In 1997 Exon was awarded a fellowship to the Ballinglen Foundation in Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, Ireland. He spent the fall semester of 1997 painting along the northwest coast of Mayo, and many of the hauntingly beautiful scenes Exon captured there are highlighted in A Quiet Light. Exon has had one-person and group exhibitions throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom.


Artist's Statement
My grandparents had a farm in South Dakota, near the Missouri River. We spent a
great deal of time with them on the farm when I was a boy. Looking back on it
now, it seemed a place out of time. Theirs was a way of life that was much more
about the 19th rather than the 20th century. When I make paintings today, I am
often drawing upon my memories of their farm and the landscape of the upper
midwest. Some people have asked me why I haven't returned to paint the upper
midwest since it left such a strong mark, but I prefer to reflect on past experiences
rather than try to relive them. Nostalgia does not interest me at all. The kind of
landscapes that interest me are those that combine elements of my past with the
present. In fact, this-kind of landscape doesn't really exist outside my painting. I
go to certain places to get glimpses of them, but they are more fictional places
than anything real. William Faulkner described himself as "sole owner and
proprietor" of the fictional county of "Yoknapatawpha." I suppose I desire a
similar ownership of a place.
All of this is something of a curse for a painter. I can't be satisfied.with simply
painting what is in front of me. There have been a few paintings in which I have
found myself abandoning completely the original subject for the product of the
imagination. The impulse to invent usually comes from a compositional or
atmospheric change that I think would improve the picture. This is usually where
my troubles begin. From that moment on, painting becomes all about trial, error,
and wishful thinking. All this being said, my desire to make paintings has always
come from my intense fascination with the land and the evocative effects of light.
Randall Exon


Following is an introductory essay from the exhibition catalogue by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the
James A. Michener Art Museum:




Meeting artists is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, and when I visit an artist's studio I often have a hard time believing that this artist made that work. Sometimes the most energetic, aggressive canvases come out of painters who appear to be meek as lambs. I've known artists who have a highly developed sense of rhythm in their pictures who also regularly stumble over their own feet. This is not the case with Randall Exon. For what it's worth, I've never seen him stumble, which is a good thing because to get from his house to his studio you have to walk down some rather circuitous outdoor stairs. More importantly, it only took a few minutes with him for me to conclude that this is definitely the guy who made those paintings.

Some artists are very businesslike: here are the pictures, pick the ones you want, see you later. Randy likes to talk things over, and he doesn't tap dance from one subject to another without ever landing anywhere. He loves to chew on ideas slowly, finding all the nourishment he can before moving on. And when he talks there's an odd feeling of space around the words. As the afternoon slowly slips by, somehow you both know that you have all the time in the world to get where you need to go in the conversation.

While he gives the impression of being a person who is awake and aware of his surroundings, he also has one ear turned inward. Randy has cultivated a sense of quiet in himself, because if you're not quiet, how can you listen? And that's what he seems to be doing all the time: listening. Maybe he's listening for the next painting, but somehow it's more than that. It's as though the space around his words comes from some wide-open spaces in his interior world -- an inner landscape where time moves more slowly, and the sunlight makes the clouds glow. He grew up in Nebraska, after all, and maybe some of the endless spaces of the Great Plains seeped into his soul. Could it be that he's listening to the wind blow across these interior plains, so he can get a feel for what the weather will be like tomorrow?

Space, time, and light: three words that come to mind when I think about Randy, but also three qualities that his pictures have more of than anyone could ever possibly need.

Some landscape painters use space as a way of filling up the gaps between events. But Randy doesn't think of space as empty. Even his indoor paintings feel roomy. But in the landscapes, space becomes the main character on the stage. You get the feeling that he's always telling the houses and fences and trees to move over and make room for that grassy field or open sky. Space is a living thing in these paintings -- a tangible, palpable presence.

How much time would "all the time in the world" be? All of eternity, perhaps? But this moment, right now, might also be an eternity, as William Blake famously said: "Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour." Randy's paintings somehow manage to be both momentary and eternal. They describe specific places, specific times of day, specific weather conditions. But in his universe these transitory things look as though they haven't changed in a thousand years. I suppose it could be argued that this paradoxical quality is one of the mysteries of the Irish landscape, where Randy has spent so much time in recent years. But isn't this the way nature is in general, from the Nebraska plains to the Pennsylvania woods to the Irish glens -- momentary, yet eternal? And isn't this the way our own souls are too?

For all their vast stretches of space and time, Randy's paintings would quickly become cold and lifeless without the light. His light is not the blazing intensity of noon but the calmer radiance of morning and late afternoon, when the shadows are longer. Randy loves light that rakes across surfaces, emphasizing texture and highlights, separating one thing from another. A dish on a windowsill, a radiator, a sink -- each entity is full and distinct, yet living comfortably in its environment. The light makes these objects shine as if they are lit up from inside.

Randy is not the first painter who fell in love with light, time, and space. He's actually adding his own singular voice to a distinguished choir that includes the luminous haystacks of Martin Johnson Heade, the timeless harbors of Fitz Hugh Lane, and the spacious quarries of Daniel Garber -- not to mention the other-worldly pastures of New Jersey as seen by George Inness. Go back a little further and the glowing interiors of Vermeer come into view. Each of these artists felt compelled to set down on canvas a vision of the world that was, in a word, spiritual. Maybe that word is the key to understanding what's going on with this Randall Exon fellow too, both the man and the pictures. The Irish fields and shorelines he paints are more than geographical events -- they are sanctified, alive. The light in his paintings does more than just define forms -- it's a quiet light that comes from someplace other than the sun.


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