Asheville Citizen Times

Paula Stark inspires nostalgia with her moody landscape paintings

David Hopes, Asheville Citizen Times, December 5, 1999

I’m not particularly distressed that I can’t remember who first cried “Painting Is Dead,” or how many took up the cry subsequently, nor is leisure long enough to sort out precisely what was meant by that sentence. But there on the walls of Zone one contemporary hang tow score and more apparently traditional oil on canvas landscapes by Oregon artist Paula Stark, on whose resume is at least one premiere Manhattan gallery, whose list of public collections includes museums (such as Asheville’s) which should know a little about the direction art is going. Something keeps “oil on canvas” – even the oil on canvas landscape – alive after both art criticism and post-modern custom would have consigned it to history.

Part of the answer is the suppleness of landscape as a subject for art. Landscape is visual quicksilver. It can answer to any emotional imperative and take the shape of any intellectual vessel. The eye of the artist and that of the observer collaborate in the creation of worlds that might be antithetical to each other, but both plausibly contained by the image on the canvas. You can love the mountain I fear, detest the meadows I long for; a good landscape reproduces in its secondary world all that multiplicity of response, without, as abstract painting might, calling into question the very act of perception. Everyone agrees this is a barn and a pond: after that the fun begins.

e one on the night of the opening, one heard a half dozen different versions of each piece. A large painting which moved me because it reminded me of the play of light on the fields of my native Ohio, irked another because it reminded her of the play of light on the fields of her native western Pennsylvania: she and I were looking at the same painting, but had different childhoods. There’s a lot of lavender in Stark’s palette; in some this sets off an automatic sniffing response. For the others, it is twilight and magic. The unworked green plane of “Onion Field” gave me peace. A companion called it “lazy painting,” by which she meant that, for half the painting, nothing much was happening visually but green gleam. It took that to make me realize how much I love green gleam.

For some, Stark’s standing waters are neutral space, a punctuation in the energy of the composition. For others, they are the point of it, the numinous, darkly radiant element for which the land and buildings serve as a frame. “Night Trees” and “Moon Trees,” which were enchanting to me, struck another as only partly formed, as scenes sketched in, or perhaps dissolving in the ongoing rain of memory. Exactly, I conceded, and liked them more.

“Rain Clouds Retreat,” the hit of the show, if speed of sale is to be reckoned, is a somber and moody piece, way to the storm gray side of Stark’s normally gemmy palette. The brilliant horizontal composition of “Nehalem River”- like living agate- gleams on the north wall, half Old Master, and half dormitory poster, both halves beautiful, both halves striking a place in the spirit well beneath- or beyond- criticism.

The loveliness of Stark’s canvases is that loveliness of recollection restored, of expectation not only met, but exceeded. The eye cries. Yes! That is it exactly, though I don’t remember it being so beautiful.

I want to say that Stark’s landscapes are spiritual, but I need to mean something more than that they are atmospheric and indistinct.

They are spiritual because, at their best, they reveal the essential mystery of places: the walls that cannot be seen through, the waters which stop the gaze at the surface, the lives lived behind partially opened windows and clumped trees, unknowable except for the force they shed around them, which bends the grass, which deepens the shadow of the hill.

Stark’s American landscapes are lovelier than most days in our lives.

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