August 30, 2006

In The Gallery

Pam Williams Gallery,

167 Main Street, Amagansett

"New Paintings by Ralph Carpentier"

"I am unendingly moved by the long, low horizontal of eastern Long Island, with its blend of sky to sea, the fallow or blossoming fields, and the grays of the atmosphere that seem so full of color."

With these opening words, as lyrical and rhythmically evocative as his paintings, Ralph Carpentier describes in a brief paragraph what has moved his eye and heart for over 50 years painting on the East End. Though inspired by the physical world before him — viewers say they recognize particular fields, barns, bays and creeks — he says he has always felt he "must alter" the land, sea and sky before him "by heightening color and distorting, twisting or inventing forms," not, however, without consulting drawings he has made en plein air and selecting from the real world's plethora of detail.

Ironically, his sea and landscapes — at once real and imaginative — have prompted some to say they can spot his work in a crowded group show; that his puffy cumulus clouds and expansive vistas that often include small figures, animals or farm machinery and "move the eye across the picture plane" are that distinctive.

Of course, it's an enviable achievement for an artist to be recognized by subject matter or style, but it's also Carpentier's accomplishment to defy easy expectations. Though it's become a cliché to note the East End's peculiar light, Carpentier, says there's nothing really extraordinary about it, noting that he's drawn rather by time of day, morning and sunset, when haze and fog may take on unusual properties, conditions that engage his color sense "in new ways."

Indeed, with this one-man show of his paintings (including the lovely pen and ink Wainscott Study — yes, some artists can still draw!), Ralph Carpentier once again shows that his art can seem both familiar and new, constant and evolving, such as in View from Picker's Place, at once typical and surprising in the way the eye fastens first on the center yellow sun, then travels past the horizon scene to concentrate on the mass of glistening stones in lower right.

Tall thunderhead clouds still tend to dominate many of Carpentier's low-horizon landscapes, but works such as Mare's Tail Sky with its gentle upper swirls; the elegant, golden-suffused Louse Point, Last Light; or the impeccably painted Boat, Bird, Old Man, a sunset companion piece, which can be seen through the gallery window, suggest that Carpentier may also be adopting a quieter, more reflective tone. Southampton Morning, with its old, red brick building, gray street and dark green trees, may even call to mind Edward Hopper, though Carpentier, not one to court the eerie or ominous, opts instead for quiet beauty.

Although all 21 various-sized paintings on exhibit here testify to meticulous brushwork (note the feathered quality of the yellow flower field in Barns and Sheds) and judicious shimmer ("I glaze a lot"), Carpentier also seems to be teasing out a kind of narrative in some of his newer work, ordering the movement of the eye by way of color.

Despite the high horizon line in Boat, Bird, Old Man that draws together yellow sea and sky, a viewer is drawn first to the beautifully painted dying-light grasses, then, in sequence, to dock, man and boat and, finally, across the canvas, to the lone figure, almost lost, standing at pier's end — a small vertical in a large composition that pulls the eye up and back to the lighthouse. In Shenandoah Visits Fort Pond Bay, it is the water that commands attention immediately, then the darkening houses — slightly off angle, as though slipping into the earth —with their odd touch of yellow window light, and then the schooner.

Ralph Carpentier refers to himself as a "composer," one who makes "visual connections," especially with a bucolic world that is disappearing to development — "they're ruining my subject matter," he jokes seriously. Much, of course, has already been lost, a fact felt in titles simple and direct, such as Dairy Farm Memory (Watermill), or in the slyly ironic Sagaponack Progress.

As Pam Williams describes it, you can hear the "intake" of breath of visitors entering the gallery as they realize with delight and appreciation that they are surrounded by nature and memory.

The exhibit runs through September 11.

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