The beauty of Tuscany is intoxicating. Two thousand years of continual habitation and fluctuating prosperity have yielded intertwining layers of order and deterioration across the rural and urban landscape. Located in the tension between the ancient and the present lies an element of beauty that has inspired countless artists and writers over the centuries.
A group of 25 local artists associated with the Cottonwood Artists School made the pilgrimage last year in search of the Tuscan muse and have returned with over 45 works in paint, watercolor and photography that will be on display from Feb. 4 through Feb. 28.
Many of the local artists avoided such Tuscan images as Michelangelo's "David" and Chianti vineyards, which are seared into the Western consciousness from years of visual bombardment. Those that did bravely approach more familiar subjects achieved mixed results. Mary Keegan's crack at the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge, "Florence on the River Arno," using fluorescent oil tones of purple, green, blue and yellow, is a fine example of excellent form overcoming technical shortfall. The broad shapes and limited detail focus attention more on color usage than realism -- a courageous and extremely pleasing approach to an intimidating subject.
Photographer Lee Manning's image of the same bridge, while technically adequate, offers a view all too familiar, taken from the bank of the Arno and encompassing the historical bridge's entire span. To fall short of capturing such institutionalized beauty is hardly disconcerting; competing with Florentine architects is no small feat.
Some of the more intimate creations avoided iconic themes altogether and went for humbler forms. Julia Wright's "Connected to the Past," is a spontaneous glimpse of the interaction between animated creation and archaic lifelessness. The image captures the torso of a badly weathered classical Roman sculpture bowing to the side, eyes fixed to the ground. A freshly spun, illuminated spider web connects the head to the muscular shoulder where the insect rests.
One of the more original approaches to the Tuscan landscape is Carol Ettenger's use of encaustic paint (molten beeswax and colored pigment). Exploiting the limitations of the medium -- namely, the inability to mix colors and use brush strokes -- Ettenger uses simple spatial compositions and flattering color choices for "Alberghi," (Trees). Limiting the scene to three solitary trees against a flat sky, Ettenger layers paint with subtle color change to create weight in the trees. The raised-relief effect against the soft and reflective background is subtle and calming.
Chuck Mardosz's fabulous examination of an extended village coastline, "Morning Light," is done in the Italian plein-air tradition emphasizing atmospheric qualities. Using classic impressionist technique, Mardosz begins to the right using faded, almost misty, background tones that gradually gain color vibrancy as the shoreline advances to the front. The painting culminates on the left side with a richly textured and highly contrasted color variation that captures the reflective light from the rising sun.
It is of great value to the local art scene -- and even more so to the participating artists -- to be able to experience art created in such inspiring settings. Identifying the precise elements that make the region so intoxicating and presenting them through 25 different voices, this group and this show are well worth a look.
Italy, from the Heart
An exhibit featuring the work of 25 artists from their trip to Northern Italy
Cottonwood Artists School, 25 Cimino Dr.
Friday, Feb. 4 through Feb. 28
Opening reception is Friday, Feb. 4 at 5:30 p.m.
Call 520-1899 for more information.