Landscapes of the mind

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James Brantley’s show at Sande Webster‘s new digs at 2006 Walnut is a good choice to inaugurate the space.

The paintings look great in the elegant old townhouse space that’s, alas, not quite in business, although ready for showing.

So here’s the story I got from Webster gallerista Ian Jarvis. The new landlord didn’t realize that the space wasn’t correctly zoned for the gallery and frame shop. So Webster cannot sell from that spot yet, and must use the old Locust Street space to handle the business side of things until the zoning is straightened out.

Webster does have staff manning the new space; so to get in, just call ahead.

Brantley’s paintings come in three basic varieties–iconic portraits, dark cityscapes and invented landscapes.

He’s best known for the landscapes, with their lush colors and vibrating horizon lines (literally shaky straight lines that transsect the canvas). They are visions of hope, romance, even allegory, with tiny, tiny figures occasionally in the vast spaces depicted. How a thoroughly urban artist incorporated the colors of the tropics in his work will just have to be one of life’s mysteries(shown, the panoramic “Flying High”).

The gorgeous tropical tones contrast with the gray urban spaces like the existential “The Sylvania,” (shown at the top) and the desolate “Earl Gray Skies” (shown left), with its four small figures plus four structures, two with windows, two blank. The painting offers up its intense shots of color sparingly–on the shirts of the figures and the lit-up sides of the otherwise gloomy buildings. The painting suggests an identity between the figures and the buildings while the horizon shimmers beneath a grim gray sky.

The horizon serves as a friendlier version of Barnett Newman’s zips, which offer narrow glimpses into the spiritual infinite.

Landscapes, no matter how realistic, are really landscapes of the artist’s mind, ideosyncratic to the artist’s vision and decisions. But in Brantley’s case, the land is often a figment of his imagination, places he has never even been or places he has reinvented. I was especially delighted by the brevity of his artist’s statement: “A painter’s journey…the unconscious made clear.” That’s it in toto.

“Some Sunday Morning,” another cityscape, offers the yellow glow of sky and gray buildings with pink lit-up sides. Again, the horizon line shimmers across the canvas, and the surprise, again, is in what’s lit up.

Also outstanding were four small, icon-like portraits (shown right, “Craig”), painted with intense, flat blue or blue-green backgrounds, the faces simply delined and thoroughly individual.

Besides the Brantley paintings (shown, “K.S. in Cuba”), photos by Ron Tarver lined a hallway, and the front room of the gallery was filled with work from a number of artists Webster shows regularly.

I somehow think everyone knows this but maybe not, so I want to add that Webster is the go-to gallery for excellent work from a relatively large number of established African-American artists, Tarver and Brantley included. For the gallery’s list of artists, go to the web site.

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