Nothing invigorates the mind like a good conversation, and that’s exactly what curator Jeremy Tessmer has created by pairing these two excellent shows of Tonalism. One is a historical survey of the style’s original period from 1870-1930, the other a group show of artists who reference the style today, with work ranging from traditional oil painting on canvas or board to photography and tapestry. Thanks to the way that some contemporary artists have adopted the softness, the attention to mood, and the unity of composition that characterized the original generation of Tonalist works, there’s a dialogue here that grounds the recent work in art history, and that makes the older paintings look fresh.
Lockwood de Forest, Leon Dabo, Granville Redmond, John Francis Murphy, and Alexander Wyant are just some of the painters represented in Tonalism Then, and while not all of the names will be equally familiar, the aesthetic agenda of the movement is evident in every picture on view. Take “Daylight Full Moon with Reflection,” a small, horizontally organized oil on cardstock by de Forest from 1910. On the surface, it’s a study of a specific light situation, the latent phosphorescence of a daylight moon in a pale sky. Although working entirely within the bounds of conventional representation, de Forest nevertheless finds a suggestive set of shapes in the moon and two tall and spare trees, and, using the reflections of these three images in water, he creates a powerfully symmetrical, yet nearly freeform, shape that dominates the picture. The effect is of a Rorschach blot flipped on its side, with the bones of a Barnett Newman zip lurking within the horizon. The full moon, that ubiquitous Tonalist totem, stands for the union of subject and object; the undivided attention of the viewer absorbed in the singularity of the image that commands it.
Lockwood de Forest has found a legitimate heir to his moon franchise in James David Thomas, who has three memorable paintings in the Tonalism Now show. “La Luna en el Labrinto, State II” (2012) captures the spectral beauty of a full moon setting over water through a beguiling combination of oil paint and wood grain. One is never quite sure where the gestures of the painter end and the contours of the surface begin. It’s a thoroughly modern image, but it’s also totally Tonal. David Skinner contributes a pair of small acrylics on paper. They’re just 10”x10”, but full of life as original compositions, and they play sophisticated post-impressionist games with angles, perspective, and scale. Ben Bauer takes the de Forest daylight-moon challenge and comes up with a beautiful, breathtakingly clean and direct image of a “Spring Moonrise in South Dakota” (2012). Sarah Vedder, the area’s foremost contemporary Tonalist, has been spending time in the Santa Ynez Valley, and her haunting paintings of “Foxen Canyon Field” and “Autumn Vineyards” (both 2011) each bear her signature sense of muted, yearning sensuality. Lindsey Ross, a photographer with an interest in older equipment and film techniques, contributes four elegant and subtly subversive tintypes, including the brilliant and utterly contemporary figure of “Mel” from 2013.
Looking at Wolf Kahn’s bold landscape in blue and green from 1998, it’s easy to see why he called this country scene “To Rothko,” and it’s not just the stacking of blocks of saturated color — it’s also the work’s powerful message of transcendence. At its best, Tonalism always points beyond the image toward the spirit immanent in what it depicts. No one captures this aspect of the movement better than April Gornik, and her large tapestry from 2006 called “Bower” has to be one of the most exciting and satisfying works of art shown here this year.