The characters, events, retrospectives will be
transmitted in the gospels, trees, animals, waters
will be passed on, death, future,
invisible faith, everything will be transmitted.
“Blades of grass”
Hi everyone. I returned.
I wrote for The Ithaca Times for about 15 years (mostly in the arts), doing about one article per week. Then retired in 2018.
Now I do about one article a year.
Why? Because every once in a while I find an artist who is such a genius, I think people just have to be careful. So: Brian Keeler.
One of the things I’ve written before is that Ithaca, NY, for such a small town, has a wildly oversized art scene.
And we have world class artists here. In the musical field, I think of the sublime Hank Roberts or the wonderful Judy Hyman of the Horseflies.
In the field of theater, I am thinking of the Ithaca Shakespeare Company.
In the visual arts, I have called Alice Muhlback as Picasso of Ithaca, Carlton Manzano as our Upstate Monet, and Ithaca designer and painter Jim Garmhausen as Robert Crumb and Robert Williams combined.
Which brings us back to the Ithaca painter Brian Keeler. I think of Brian Keeler as a Renaissance master. (He can also shift gears and paint like an Impressionist master or a Fauvist master, but we won’t even get into that.)
And Keeler has a new exhibition, Modern Mythological Manifestations: From Titian to Keeler, in his North Star Gallery, here in the greater Ithaca region, through November and December 2021.
Brian picked me up and drove me to his studio on a beautiful cloudy day in early October. The studio is in the countryside, east of Ithaca, located in a beautiful Victorian Italian house built in 1865. (I was trying to get a feel for the idea that this house was built during from the last year of the Civil War.) Normally, when I visit a gallery, I hang out and take notes.
But to my surprise, Brian had a whole presentation ready to go. Her significant other, Linda Graves, filmed us on a smartphone (for a YouTube video for god’s sake) as Brian walked around his studio and gave a (rather full and brilliant) talk on the paintings. (I managed to interrupt every now and then and babble a bit… hoping to give the final video a more conversational feel.)
Incidentally, the paintings were all breathtaking.
There is an incredible amount of masterful work to be seen here, folks. But let’s consider a handful of paintings… the ones I found most convincing… I hope to give the art reader a taste of the show.
The material falls into three crude categories: mythological or allegorical paintings, paintings involving the works of upstate New York sculptor John Belardo, and landscapes.
Concerning mythological or allegorical works: The highlight of the show, for me, is “The cup of the hemlock”, an allegory of the death of Socrates. This painting is a riff on the famous painting of the death of Socrates by the romantic and neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David.
We see Socrates, on a bench, gesturing to his grieving students, just before he drinks the cup of hemlock (forced upon him by the idiotic Athenian authorities).
In fact, I find Brian Keeler’s painting more engaging than his source material.
Keeler takes a somewhat surreal approach. And, rather than being set in a stone prison like in David’s masterpiece, Keeler stages a sunny Tuscan landscape with burnished fields, cypress trees lining a stylized zigzag road with a horse and a distant horseman above it, an expanse of forest, and monumental cumulus clouds in an azure Italian sky.
Something Keeler does that I really admire is that he changed the ages of the grieving students. In David’s masterpiece, the students are largely young people. In Keeler’s work he chose middle-aged models. The result is that he finds irresistible beauty in the middle-aged human form.
Another eerie, vivid and almost surreal touch is that Keeler plants a colorful rooster in the foreground of the painting. (I think of this rooster in the foreground of Citizen Kane by Orson Welles.) It comes from the traditional story that Socrates’ last words were a demand to repay the god Asclepius (the god of medicine) for a rooster. that he owed him.
Another of the new mythological paintings is “Ulysses and the Incredible Levitating Boat”. Here we see Ulysses (aka Ulysses) standing imposingly in a rowboat… floating in the air above a pond. A sailor, seated at the back and rowing backwards, oars the boat. The water flows from the boat in a stylized way that evokes surrealism. And naked water nymphs emerge from the pond, imploring Odysseus like the Sirens.
The pond has huge water lilies and a distant Japanese-inspired bridge that evokes Monet’s famous water lily paintings. And there’s a moonlit fall forest in upstate New York in the background. The painting is rendered in an academic realism-neo-classical style… but the effect is both surreal and humorous.
Brian also showed me some of the studies for these paintings. And they are as spectacular as the final paintings. There is a “Study of Socrates” and a “Study of Ulysses”, both rendered in red chalk and white pastel on tinted paper in the style of the drawings of the Renaissance masters. Both are beautiful and engaging realistic studies.
The next category of paintings involves a response to the work of an artist from upstate New York named John Belardo. Belardo is a sculptor who works in Pine Planes, NY, a small town in the Hudson Valley, east of Kingston, near the Massachusetts border.
Keeler writes in an essay on his North Star Studio website: “I first got to know John through his involvement in the Hudson Valley Art League, when he was president of that organization from 2009 to 2016. I was in one of the exhibitions of this organization. held at the Salmagundi Club in New York. Eventually, I became friends on Facebook with John and was impressed by the incredible virtuosity expressed by his multi-figure ensembles. For me, there was nothing else quite like them in all of art history.
Keeler visited Belardo’s studio in April this year, resulting in a remarkable series of drawings and paintings by Belardo working on his sculptures. The works reinvent Belardo as a sculptor working in 15th century Florence. That’s because they’re meant to be illustrations for a novel that Keeler is developing.
This is from a website essay where Keeler writes about the project: “I have a novel in mind about Renaissance Italy where the main character is in the studio of Verrochio, the sculptor and painter. in Florence in the middle of the quadricento. The concept and inspiration of the novel is to review this workshop with the students of Verrochio, Leonardo, Perugino, Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi and others. As I plan to illustrate the work, I needed a sculptor whose work relates to this august tradition and has similar themes of ancient myth and biblical narrative. John’s job was a perfect fit.
And Keeler’s resulting drawings and paintings are wonderful. The drawings are hyperrealistic… and the paintings are reminiscent of both Renaissance paintings and illustrations from the golden age of magazine illustration.
The last category of paintings in the exhibition consists of landscapes. Keeler is an extraordinary landscaper. (His work is so masterful that it’s a bit disorienting.)
There is a wide variety of works… views of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Italy, Ireland and France. (Another thing Keeler does that I love – even when he paints traditional mythological themes, he often places the action in landscapes that are clearly American East Coast landscapes … which gives the work a inherent surreal feel.)
The paintings are realistic, sometimes a little impressionistic, and often the color is overloaded. (And Brian, at the time, told me that critics compared him to the early 20th-century Fauvist movement, whose followers painted landscapes with “falsified” or “arbitrary” colors.)
Most of Keeler’s landscapes are outdoor works. (“Plein air” being a whimsical French expression meaning that the work is painted outside on site.) There are views of the Finger Lakes, country roads, hills, glowing cumulus clouds, fireballs. cylindrical hay, a cold November light, late August sunsets and light streaming through the trees like honey.
Indeed, one of the most extraordinary things about Keeler’s paintings is his use of light. The light seems to shine on his canvases as if the viewer is actually standing upright in the real world. (When I wrote an article on Keeler for The Ithaca Times around 2015, he laughed and said, “The light is kind of the main subject, and the stage or the topography or the buildings are kind of secondary actors. ”)
The first time I noticed this curious light effect was in 1979. I was visiting the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and saw my first Van Gogh. (Not in a book, but in real life.) It was a surprising experience… the painting seemed to radiate light. Indeed, the light seemed to spring from the canvas. It was like being hit by a strong gust of wind.
But Van Gogh’s light is more of a psychedelic, exaggerated light… while the light emanating from Brian Keeler’s canvases is more naturalistic, softer, affecting the viewer on a deep, nostalgic, almost unconscious level.
The scenery that caught my eye the most when I was in Brian’s studio was a long-range night view overlooking the city of Ithaca from a stone patio on University Avenue in Ithaca. (I’ve actually been to this location in the real world.)
The light seemed to shine softly on the canvas as if Brian had slyly lit the canvas with real lights from behind. For some reason, I found this painting particularly compelling. (Note to Brian: I would love to buy this one, if I could afford it.)
And so, in conclusion, I cannot recommend this show highly enough.
If the art lover can visit the North Star Gallery, I think they will find the experience very rewarding. Or, if not, it would be worth seeing the paintings online on the gallery’s website.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “The job of the artist is to make people enjoy life better than before. “
I think Brian Keeler’s wonderful paintings will do more than fulfill this function.
Brian Keeler’s exhibition, Modern Mythological Manifestations, will take place in November and December 2021 at the North Star Art Gallery, 743 Snyder Hill Road, Ithaca, NY 14850. The gallery is open Friday through Sunday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment -you. Telephone: (607) 323-7684. Visit www.northstarartgallery.com for more information.