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A Measured and Deliberate Response: The Art of Colin Berry

November 4 - December 31:, 2008

 

In the exhibition "A Measured and Deliberate Response: The Art of Colin Berry," on view at the Cahoon Museum of American Art from November 4 to December 31:, 2008, the contemporary New Hampshire oil painter Colin Berry draws upon the rich tradition of the Italian Renaissance "window on the world" motif. In the process Berry creates hauntingly evocative and beautiful images that are both mysterious and glowing with inner life. Poetically evocative, these paintings feature a resolute realism replete with mystery and aesthetic depth.

 

Newsletter article

Following is a member newsletter article by Robert Gambone, Director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art:

Collin Berry describes himself as a "Realist Painter," an artist who has studied both historical and contemporary approaches to oil painting and color theory. His aesthetic tendencies are born of the Italian, specifically Florentine, Renaissance tradition. This rich and wonderful heritage is manifest in the quietly classical aura of Berry's pictures and through his decidedly linear style of stating form. Such an approach results in an inherently mysterious and compelling juxtaposition of form within an imagined, vast, and atmospheric space that quiets the mind and gently prompts contemplation.
 
This feeling for contemplation one senses when looking at a Berry painting is no accident. For the Italian artists of the 15th century, from whom Berry takes his inspiration, were themselves working out of a centuries-old heritage rooted in the religious traditions of Byzantine painting. But while Byzantine pictures lacked atmosphere and placed a priority upon the spiritual and mystical, Italian artists cultivated a new feeling of three-dimensional illusion based on observed reality and rooted in one-point perspective.
 
Utilizing this approach as his starting point, synthesized with nineteenth century French academic methods, Berry creates pictures that evoke a poetic mood. "In my work," Berry notes, "I attempt to observe nature carefully and organize what I see into visually beautiful arrangements with subtle thematic ideas." Berry's Still-Lifes often present a highly focused central theme juxtaposed with an atmospheric landscape, a motif he developed as a result of his experience in Italy as a Fulbright Grant recipient from 1993-1994. With this as his starting point, the paintings become vehicles for contemplation on a variety of artistic issues such as the role and meaning of representation and illusion in art, the role of beauty and aesthetics in painting, and the unveiling of hidden emotional currents in the posited interrelationships between objects.
 
Graduating Cum Laude with a B.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire, Durham, Colin Berry simultaneously pursued studies at the Yale University Summer School of Art in Norfolk, Connecticut. Following graduation (1984), Berry enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Boston University, a degree he received with high honors (1987). Shortly thereafter, he began to receive early recognition of his talent. From 1988 through 1991, Berry served as a lecturer at his alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, and in 1990 concurrently held the post of Visiting Faculty at the Wesleyan University Graduate Liberal Studies Program in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1990 Berry received an Artist Opportunity Grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, an honor reprised in 1994 when the State of New Hampshire granted him a second award. The University of New Hampshire also engaged Berry in 1991 when the artist conducted a Master Class in the Visual Arts. And in 1992 New Hampshire Public Television profiled Berry on their program "New Hampshire Crossroads."
 
The William J. W. Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, Washington, D.C. awarded the artist a Fulbright Grant to paint in Italy in 1993-1994. This provided for a year of study at the prestigious Florence Academy of Art, a seminal experience in Berry's career and one recounted in The Boston Globe ["For Art Scholars, Fulbright Years Were Turning Points," Gail Kelly, August 21, 1994].
 
Numerous reviews followed: in American Artist (January 1999); the Encyclopedia of Living Artists, 11th edition (1999); Portland Press Herald (June 2000); and a second review in American Artist (2005). In 1998 Berry was among a select group of artists to attend the Nelson Shanks Master Class at the Art Students League, New York. His work has been exhibited extensively in galleries and shows throughout New England and the Mid-West, including the Copley Society, Boston; Francesca Anderson Fine Art (Lexington, MA); Simie Maryles Gallery (Provincetown, MA); Susan Maasch Fine Art (Bangor, ME); Mast Cove Galleries (Kennebunkport, ME); Miller Gallery (Cincinnati, OH); and Gallery M (Denver, CO). The Cahoon Museum of American Art is pleased to give Colin Berry his first museum showing.

Wall and label text from the exhibition

Primavera
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 16 by 20 inches
 
Primavera is Italian for spring or springtime. One cannot approach Berry's interpretation of this theme without referencing the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) whose Primavera (pictured below) depicts a chaste maiden walking through a flowery wood accompanied by the three graces, Mercury and the Zephyr, and Primavera herself. Many allegorical interpretations have been advanced to interpret the painting, but one thing is sure: a chaste and pristine beauty clothes the forms.
 
(above: Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Primavera)
 
Playing with this notion, Berry, who studied in Florence in 1993-1994 and visited the Galleria degli Uffizi where Botticelli's painting resides, chose to interpret spring in the form of a seated nude set against his trademark ledge and Tuscan landscape. The beauty and freshness of the Italian vista and the red cloth echo the motif of spring as does the young woman's ideal figure. Her nude torso set against an atmospheric sky further recalls Springtime (1808) by the German Romantic painter Philip Otto Runge (at left). Berry's painting is thus a rich distillation of art historical references, personal observation, and solid draftsmanship.
 
(above: Colin Berry, Primavera, Oil on linen, 16 by 20 inches)
 
 
Fruitbasket
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 30 by 36 inches
 
This striking motif calls to mind the hyper-realism of the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose painting Still Life with a Basket of fruit, c. 1601(Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy) appears at left. While both artists entice and engage the viewer through the realism of the subject, there are important differences. Caravaggio places his fruit basket against a blank wall, throwing the motif into sharp relief, all the better to focus attention upon the fruit. In the wilting grape leaf, the slightly turned ripeness of the grapes themselves, and apples marred by worm holes, there is an undercurrent of moralism to the Caravaggio painting as one would expect from a Baroque artist working in counter-reformation Italy. Withering nature sums up the Latin phrase, vaitas vanitatis (vanity of vanities), symbolizing the fleeting vanity of all earthly beauty.
 
Berry delights in the rich juxtaposition of the fruit basket with its outdoor surroundings. The warm atmospheric haze and the tactile sensation of the red damask play up the red ripeness of the pears. Nothing wilts or spoils. In contrast with the moralizing Baroque theme, Berry pulls out all the stops to luxuriate in the sensual beauty and pleasure of his motif. Paradoxically, this extreme perfection also allows for a note of uncertainly, for the more intently one looks, the more one begins to question the representation of a subject that appears so pristine and perfect
 
(above: Colin Berry, Fruitbasket, Oil on canvas, 30 by 36 inches)
 
 
Teacup Roses
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 8 by 10 inches
 
At first glance, this gorgeous motif appears to be a straightforward still life comprised of an elegant china teacup and Baroque pink roses, the whole set on a stone ledge before a distant landscape panorama. And it certainly is all that. Yet it is possibly more.
 
For as with similar works in this exhibition, particularly Striped Red Pears and Garlics, what seems like a common arrangement of fruit or flowers becomes, the more intently one stares and absorbs the motif, an almost surreal, magical arrangement. Through their exacting, pristine rendering, inanimate still life objects assume an eerie, almost human quality, as if they were somehow secretly communicating with one another, their proximate location on a ledge like that of a couple of lovers staring out at the beauty of the Tuscan vista that surrounds them. Then again, they may simply be what they seem. Yet, the combination of magic realism, intense beauty, exacting form, and careful -- not casual or accidental -- placement, enables one to muse over their meaning. At this, Berry is a master, and it is a principal reason why his painted still life exerts such a powerful allure.
 
 
Red Venetian Candy
Colin Berry
Oil on board, 5 by 7 inches
 
Red Venetian Candy functions on a number of levels. Most obviously, it is an intimate depiction of a sugary confection. Yet because the painting title includes the name of the Italian city of Venice, additional associations immediately come to mind.
 
Historically, Venice was once a great maritime power, a conduit for the spice and silk trade between Asia and Europe. These associations are still reflected in the uniqueness of Venice's architecture with their Byzantine influences. By the 18th century much of Venice's former glory had faded, but this legacy lived on in the elaborate fêtes and masked balls of carnivale, a period of merrymaking preceding lent. Candy and other delicacies were lavishly distributed on such occasions.
 
Venice also has been associated with the famous glass-making center of Murano, an island in the Venetian lagoon but a short gondola ride from the city itself. Venetian glass became (and still is) world famous, and, together with the art of making mirrors, the secret of its lacy, delicate manufacture was guarded for centuries and prized on aristocratic tables throughout Europe.
 
Although the glass making tradition continues to this day, it has largely become a tourist affair. The most readily available-and least expensive-ornaments one can take away from Murano are ubiquitous glass trinkets shaped to look like wrapped candies and sweets. And it is interesting that here the lavender silhouette visible in the far distance recalls the campanile of San Marco, Venice's famous cathedral.
 
 
Rose Momento
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 8 by 10 inches
 
The word momento is Italian for moment, as in a moment of time, and the expression uno momento the equivalent to the English colloquial phrase "just a sec."
 
But the careful, deliberate placement of an exquisite rose on a ledge as in Berry's picture also would seem to connote a similar word, memento, one with particular meaning. Derived from the Latin (as well as Italian), memento signifies an action performed or an object or token left behind or kept especially in memory of some thing, person, or event, usually with personal significance to the person engaged in creating it.
 
In western culture, roses are often used as mementos, most frequently as symbols of love. Red roses, in particular, carry this notion a step further, as red is a color traditionally associated with passion, hence the giving of red roses to one's lover becomes a symbol expressive of ardent devotion.
 
Berry's painting seems to play off these ideas: In a single moment, a rose has been left on a ledge, and through that act the rose seems to assume greater import, as a token of love, devotion, passion. Is it, perhaps, passion for all of Tuscany that looms beyond the ledge in the distant horizon and where Berry painted for a time? Or is it on behalf of a particular person? Or, just perhaps, it is a mere accident of time, a casual placement of a gorgeous rose without significance?
 
 
Striped Red Pears
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 10 by 8 inches
 
 
Garlics
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 8 by 10 inches
 
 
Artist's Still Life
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 26 by 36 inches
 
All artists at one time or another create still life, often as an exercise in studying form, light and shadow, and composition. In this picture, Berry utilizes several objects that are often found individually in many of his pictures: fruit, a lathe figure (representing of human form), a gilded frame like those in which he frames many of his pieces, and a painter's cloth.
 
About this painting, Berry notes, "the wooden figure is the center of this assemblage with the knife representing disharmony. I remember the countless hours of work carefully modulating the finely softened shapes of color making up the fabric, one of my favorite parts."
 
 
Daffodil Still Life
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 20 by 17 inches
 
Comprised of contrasting tactile surfaces, Daffodil Still Life, Berry notes, belies the influence of Nelson Shanks in terms of painterly and coloristic facility upon Berry's own work.
 
A well-known figure among realist artists, Shanks is a world-renowned painter, art teacher, and founder of Studio Incamminati. A multiple award recipient from the Greenshields Foundation and the Stacey Foundation, Shanks studied in Italy with Pietro Annigoni at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. He has maintained a studio at Bucks County, Pennsylvania for over three decades where artists received instruction, room, and board at no cost. His portrait clients have included such luminaries as President Bill Clinton, Diana, Princess of Wales, Luciano Pavarotti, Pope John Paul II, and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 2006 the governor of Pennsylvania awarded Shanks the Governor's Distinguished Arts Award recognizing a Pennsylvania artist of international renown whose creations enrich the Commonwealth.
 
When one looks at Berry's portraits exhibited here, one can certainly see the influence of Shanks upon this body of work. However, in this lovely still life of daffodils, as Berry has already noted, the artist seems to strike off in a more independent direction, almost as if to experiment with a different approach to picture making.
 
 
Peach Sunset
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 12 by 16 inches
 
The cleaver pun implicit in the painting's title calls attention to the fact that the golden-red fruit is set in the immediate center of the painting against a cloudy horizon. The peachy ripeness thus substitutes for the absent (non-visible) roseate sunset that would normally beautify the Tuscan landscape, the round form of the peach furthering this allusion.
 
 
Tuscan Twilight
Colin Berry
Oil on board, 5 by 7 inches
 
This is the only picture in the exhibition painted on a wooden panel, and it is, perhaps, fitting that the subject should be a Tuscan landscape. For during the Italian Renaissance most of the leading artists painted on carefully aged wooden panels about the size of the one you see here. Each had been prepared to receive paint layers after being coated with numerous sanded layers of fine gesso. When he painted this picture, Berry seems to acknowledge the debt owed to these illustrious cinquecento masters by rendering a small-scale panel picture of Tuscany whose capital city Florence gave birth to the Renaissance.
 
 
Pearl Earring
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 20 by 16 inches
 
The exquisite beauty of this nude, glimpsed from the back, is rendered almost more sensual because of the demure pose. This deliberate aesthetic choice on the part of the artist heightens the contrast between flesh, hair, sky, and objects, in this case a pearl earring.
 
The muscles and bones of the shoulder blades and vertebra contrast with the soft texture of shoulder, nape of the neck, and cheek while the golden hair cascading down upon the figure's left shoulder and streaks of light in her hair provide an additional tactile richness. The whole is given a central point of reference in the pearl earring of the painting's title, positioned as it is almost in the immediate center of the picture. Its opalescent sheen acts as a visual fulcrum around which all other points and surfaces of the picture, be they flesh, hair, or sky, are measured and contrasted. The model's name is Becky, who also is the subject of Feminine Pathos seen elsewhere in the gallery.
 
 
Jessica
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches
 
 
Far Away
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 26 by 24 inches
 
 
Modern Adonis
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 20 by 24 inches
 
This partially completed portrait of a young man makes reference through the painting's title to the Greek god Adonis, a handsome youth beloved by both Aphrodite (Venus, goddess of love) and Persephone (goddess of the underworld). To settle the argument between the two goddesses over whom should possess Adonis, Zeus decreed that Adonis would spend six months of every year with each, thus giving rise to six months of summer and regeneration of the earth and six months winter. In modern day parlance, Adonis has become a commonly accepted phrase to allude to an extremely attractive, youthful male, often with a connotation of vanity. Whether this reference is intended here is difficult to say, though the painting's title would seem to indicate Berry found the subject handsome enough to draw a parallel between his studio model and the Greek god of male beauty.
 
 
Feminine Pathos
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches
 
 
Erin
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 16 by 12 inches
 
 
Judy
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 20 by 16 inches
 
 
Tigerlilly
Colin Berry
Oil on linen, 8 by 10 inches
 
 
Becky; Etude
Colin Berry
Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches

 

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