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Thomas Locker at The Catskill Gallery

Essay on the Sublime

ART TIMES November 2007

AS THE CURRENT exhibition* of some 23 paintings by Thomas Locker (which includes three still lifes) so clearly shows, landscape painting in the Hudson Valley/Catskill Mountain Region is far from moribund. Aptly, The Catskills Gallery in Saugerties, New York, where the show is hung, is itself only a few blocks from one of the finest views of the north face of Overlook, the first and perhaps the most imposing mountain in the string of hills along the west bank of the Hudson River that the Amerinds once called “Manitou’s Wall”.

Something of that sensibility that these mountains were “special” — a manifestation in the form of a “wall” presented to man by God Himself, i.e. ‘Manitou’ — was deeply felt by the first painters that came to the region, the so-called “Hudson River School of Painters”, generally believed to be “led” by Thomas Cole who often spoke of the “sublimity” of the natural beauties of the surrounding landscape. Though the notion persists, there was actually no such “school” at all — the appellation “Hudson River Painters”, intoned nowadays in near-reverential delivery, was in fact originally intended as a derogatory term used by big-city painters who considered knocking around the wilds somewhat beneath the dignity of “real” artists — there is little doubt that Cole and those who followed him into the region did feel a certain awe when they brought their sketch pads and traveling paint boxes into the Catskills. And, if we can surmise his intent by the title of just one of Thomas Locker’s paintings — “Essay on the Sublime” — then we must assume that the awe, the feeling of being in the presence of the sublime, still exists to this day.

Morning Sun

But we need not trust to this one painting alone. That Thomas Locker emulates Cole and his followers — if indeed is not directly influenced by them — is evidenced by not only the title of another of his paintings, “Homage to Thomas Cole”, but also by his painterly technique. A consummate craftsman, Locker, of course, has the advantage of passed time on his side, so we are able to also enjoy the spectacular red skies of a Frederic Church, the dreamy and soft-edged vistas of a George Inness, or the skillful play of light favored by the later “luminists” (another iffy term made up by artwriters who didn’t seem to understand that the treatment of light had played a major role in painting since earliest times). Likewise, following the dicta of many of the “Hudson River Painters”, Locker prefers a landscape unsullied by the presence of man — though he does allow barely discernible buildings to appear in the distance, a building or two nestled behind trees, a fence post or two presumably placed by some human hand — even, in one painting, allowing a human form to stand in the foreground. By and large, however, it is the notion of a landscape that is yet to be subdued — ruined, if you will — by the intervention of man and his artifacts.

Ironically, the double conviction that Nature (with a capital ‘N’) was a sublime gift of God and that America was offering the painter a newly-discovered, “uncivilized” panorama, led to the paradox found in many of the “Hudson River School” paintings, namely a landscape that in its depiction is soft-edged, dreamy — “sublime” — anything, in short, but the raw countryside that stood before their eyes. Part of the problem lies in the fact that most early American painters learned their trade in Europe — where most landscapes have been tamed by centuries of human habitation — and a good deal of what we call “American” landscapes from the 19th-century are little more than European transplants. Modern-day advocates of the old tradition still persist in the ambiguity.

Meadow in the Summer

The Catskills might be old — not nearly as rugged as the Alps or the newer Rockies — but, even today, they are not so elegantly manicured as many of the “Hudson River School” painters and their followers make them out to be. As beautiful as it may appear, Locker’s “Fawn’s Leap”, for example, is somewhat more “user-friendly” than I remember it. But then this, of course, is his intent; Locker means to make it “sublime”. Locker, as is his imperative as an artist, is imposing his aesthetic view on what he sees before him. An artist cannot do — ought not do — less. The photographer can show us what is; the painter must, in short, make us see what we are missing.

Thomas Locker, in his presentation of the region’s beauties, does so with great sensibility and subtle finesse. The moods he captures in such paintings as “Snow and Moon”, “Morning Mists” or “Essay on the Sublime” are — like Cole’s, like Church’s, like Kensett’s — his moods and he presents them forcefully and admirably. For those lovers of landscape painting, it is difficult not to be moved by his cloudscapes or his painterly treatment of water, trees, and distant hill. Whether in small scale or large — something that gallery director Patty Hanson emphasizes in her thoughtful hanging and spacing of each individual painting — Locker presents us with insights into nature that can make us catch our breath and stop to ponder — no small accomplishment when we consider that the globe’s environment is threatened on a number of fronts that loom on the horizon. You’ll like this show.

*“Paintings by: Thomas Locker” (thru Dec 23): The Catskills Gallery, 106 Partition St., Saugerties, NY (845) 246-5552

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