May 24, 2006
The Grenning Gallery,
90 Main Street, Sag Harbor
"Paul Rafferty: Figures In East End Landscape"
A funny thing happened on the way to the Marine Museum. The East End Classic Boat Society was about to meet. Not far from the entrance, a lone figure was standing by the side of the road, sketching. Who wouldn't be curious? Lovely pencil drawings. Did the artist exhibit in the area? Well, yes, a British accent clearly discernible. In fact, that very evening his paintings were going to be on view at the Grenning Gallery. Nice coincidence: Paul Rafferty's solo oils and watercolor "Figures in the Landscape" had just been scheduled for review, and, as it turned out, some Classic Boat Society members, informed about the stranger on the street, said they knew about this transplanted artist from Oxford who is a member of the American Society of Marine Artists. Boats are a familiar sight in Rafferty's works, even as regatta blips on a horizon line.
The chance meeting in Amagansett was telling. A frequent visitor to The East End, Rafferty, self-trained, is constantly at work — drawing when he's not painting and reading when he's not drawing. At the gallery, he points to one of his en plein air oils, Notre Dame de Vie and to an open book nearby. The village, near Mougins, north of Cannes, where Picasso lived, had inspired Winston Churchill, who is pictured painting the very hermitage that engaged Rafferty. He's amused at the similarity of their perspectives and choice of time of day. Churchill, of course, was a skilled amateur who restricted himself to oil painting. Rafferty, a professional for over two decades, whose work is well known in California, where he lives when he's not in France, loves to work in watercolor as well. Although some pictures in the Grenning exhibit evoke French strands (as in the radiant Cannes Umbrellas), Rafferty's lively, impressionistic, sun-dappled paintings of East End beaches and Main Street in Sag Harbor command primary attention: their location is instantly identifiable; they are joyous.
Grenning's interspersing of watercolors and oils in both the downstairs and upstairs gallery gives viewers a chance to admire Rafferty's talent in both media, as he captures with uncanny single brush strokes motion and light. Precisely because he returns to a scene to do in oil what he has already done in a smaller watercolor, his sure hand can be appreciated. Slight differences in poses only enhance the appreciation. The two figures in Windy Day, Sagg Main who stand atop dune grass, legs partially lost in light, sway into the wind, their faceless bodies yielding to the breeze in celebration of the day. With just one daub of the paintbrush (Rafferty dislikes the palette knife, thinking it can lead to gimmickry), the sun shines through the woman's diaphanous skirt. A watercolor variation on the same theme shows the same two figures in basically the same composition, but their stance is different. The smaller watercolor gives them greater presence in their surroundings. In the oil, they are swept up by the scene.
Grenning, for years identified with preserving the Florentine tradition of Renaissance academic painting, might be said to have made a major departure by exhibiting Rafferty's impressionistic works. "It's a bit of a shift," Laura Grenning concedes, but then she directs a viewer to the "truths" of Rafferty's recognizable subject matter — Havens Beach, Sagg Main, the stretch of shops near the movie (including Financial Times, a witty oil-on-board picture of two men, dog in tow, sitting on benches reading). But it's Rafferty's technique that makes the stronger case for an academic connection. His application of pigment is so assured in creating seeming spontaneity, the painterly equivalent of what in writing is called le mot juste (the exact, right word), that it suggests extensive study of the Masters.
It should be noted that one oil painting could easily find its way into a traditional Grenning show — Passing Storm, Long Beach. Rafferty explains — it's an early work. Lovely, smoothly painted, perhaps too carefully composed, it lacks the textured, dazzling qualities of the impressionistic pieces. But it shows where the artist comes from and where he is going. Rafferty also does still lifes, but they don't generate the excitement of the beach scenes that exemplify his expertise at delineating with the barest of strokes the play of light on figures, puffy cloud masses, tilted fences, umbrellas and flags, all in perfect composition.
The exhibit runs through June 18.