The Bonfoey Gallery (1700 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH) is the kind of establishment I adore: it’s an art gallery in the business of showing real, contemporary artists. Places like it are rare outside New York City, and I tip my hat to them. I make a point of visiting every new show as well as browsing their permanent collection in the downstairs galleries.
Their current show consists of landscapes by Stephen Pentak, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State. Pentak displays a lively sense of nature in these autumnal paintings. Although these are oils (on canvas, wood, and paper), they remind one of watercolors.
Each painting shows a wooded scene with a lake or pond. Landscape elements are mirrored in the water and so the paintings all have a strong horizontal design. The horizontal motif is broken by bare, vertical trees, sometimes alone, sometimes two or three together. Surfaces consist of large flat areas, which further emphasis the geometric “designieness.” While surfaces are often broken by mottled textures in an attempt to relieve the bare geometry, the effect is lost, perhaps due to a uniform neatness and primness. So the paintings strongly emphasize the underlying geometry.
Artists should resist giving in to thoroughgoing formalism, in my humble opinion. Discovering and resisting geometries is part of the drama and tension of compelling works. In the works or John Sell Cotman, for example, discovering underlying geometries is a true delight. But if an artist emphasizes the formal, their work suffers unless they tease with it like Cotman, or rage war against it—someone like, say, my old teacher at Brooklyn College Philip Pearlstein.
While these paintings are not my cup of tea, they are lively and honest—an important consideration. I am sure there are those who will find their strong formalism delightful and subtle. Unfortunately, for me these paintings lack drama—another important consideration.
At any rate, be sure to explore the gallery’s downstairs rooms after viewing the main exhibition. Oil paintings are in the $6,000–$8,000 range, if memory serves.
Stephen Pentak has responded by email to my review of his exhibition. Mr. Pentak has generously agreed to let me post the correspondence.
S. Pentak wrote:
I just stumbled upon your review of one of my shows at Bonfoey and I want to commend you on the thoughtful approach to the paintings. You were spot on in your observations, and in all honesty I’d rather have a doubtful review that is really observant than a skim coat that only addresses the apparent subject of the landscape. 6/28/2013
I responded 6/30/2013
Thank you for your warm note.
As a blogger, I do not have to worry about grumpy editors or deadlines, other than self-imposed ones. I have the luxury of reviewing only those shows that interest and grab me. I visited your show several times.
Mr. Pentak wrote:
Tom, You might be interested to know that the rather strong geometry comes from the marks of the tools… Broad blades and brushes… As well as the inherent geometry of the rectangles. This harkens back to my earliest work in grad school which was influenced by Stella’ Black Paintings and even Steve Reich compositions. Through my years as a painter I have continued to carry on a conversation between construction and depiction. Sometimes it is an internal argument. 6/30/2013