A breath of fresh air: A.P.E. Gallery reopens with group show of en plein air landscape paintings

  • Greenfield artist Frank Gregory prepares to hang a show of five plein air landscape painters, including himself, at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton on Tuesday. Gregory curated the exhibit, “Five Who Paint Outside,” which also has works by David Brewster, left, Dave Gloman, Christine Labich and Ray Larrow. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Staging for Early Memory” by Ray Larrow Image courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • “Social Distance,” oil painting by Frank Gregory.  Courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • “Evening Flush,” pastel on paper by Christine Labich. Robert A. Jonas/courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • This untitled work by David Brewster will also be in the show. John Polak Photography

  •  “The Clearing” by David Gloman. Image courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  •  “Spaghetti Night!” by Bruce Ackerson. John Polak Photography/courtesy Hampden Gallery

  • “Joggers” by Bruce Ackerson. Image from artist’s website

  •  “Boxcar Getaway” by Bruce Ackerson. John Polak Photography/courtesy Hampden Gallery

  • Northampton artist David Brewster, pictured here in 2016, tends to set up his easel along busy roads and in other urban settings to construct his abstract works, splashed with color and sharp-edged images inspired by what he calls our “increasingly bizarre and incongruous synthetic landscape.” gazette file photo

  • Amherst resident Christine Labich, seen in 2019 in her Florence studio, paints in both oil and pastels. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, March 05, 2021

The official start of spring is just a few weeks away — so what better time for an exhibit that celebrates the outdoors with art that’s actually created there?

“Five Who Paint Outside,” which opens Thursday at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, is a group show of five Valley painters who do most of their work en plein air, working outside much of the year to try and capture the essence of a landscape by making natural light and color a key part of their work.

From lush scenes of summer meadows and hills, to views of snowbound winter woods, to abstract urban tableaus that hum with energy, the work by Greenfield painter Frank Gregory, the exhibit curator, and the four others artists — David Brewster, Dave Gloman, Christine Labich and Ray Larrow — offers a range of styles and means for examining landscape up close.

The exhibit is the first at A.P.E. since late last year. Director Lisa Thompson says the gallery closed for January and February as a precaution against an uptick in COVID-19 cases in December, and because visitation tends to be lower in the winter.

In fact, “Five Who Paint Outside” was originally scheduled to be shown in December, but Thompson said she and Gregory and the other painters ultimately decided it would make more sense to have the show this month.

“We all felt that it would be nice to showcase this work when people are looking to get out of their homes again and we can all start looking forward to the return of warmer weather,” she said.

In a recent phone interview, Gregory said he’d been looking to do a group show of en plein air painters for some time and had eventually approached the four other artists after considering working with some different painters. Not only does he admire the work of his colleagues, he said, but he also sees a cohesiveness in their collective work even though they all have their individual styles.

“I think we all have our own interpretations of what we see, but one thing we all share is a commitment to working outside and making that experience central to our work,” he said.

As Gregory noted in an artist’s statement about the new exhibit, “I’ve assembled this group to showcase the differences and similarities in our work, which hopefully will magnify and enhance the experience of seeing what each of us accomplish as individual artists.”

Gregory, for his part, has a somewhat impressionistic style that shows a touch of Cézanne. His oil painting “Social Distance,” for instance, offers a view of large boulders in a patch of leafless woods, though there’s a bright blue sky visible through the trees, and the trunks cast shadows across some of the rocks.

Labich, an Amherst artist who has a studio in Florence, paints in both oil and pastels, and in both mediums her work offers rich colors and in some cases almost a photographic quality that seems particularly suited to capturing the warmth and haze of a summer day.

Gloman, of Northampton, and Larrow, of Holyoke, both use bold blocks of color in their landscapes, which range from intimate views of interior woods and streams to more expansive views of fields and distant hills.

Brewster, by contrast, tends to set up his easel along busy roads and in other urban settings to construct his abstract works, splashed with color and sharp-edged images inspired by what the Northampton artist calls our “increasingly bizarre and incongruous synthetic landscape.”

Gregory notes that he and the other painters also work outdoors in winter, though he says he doesn’t do so as often as he did in the past; the artists may also use photographs, sketches and other references to finish a work started outside, or to work on one inside if the weather is too severe.

“Painting outside is wonderful, but it can be a lot of work to find a spot you really like and to lug all your equipment out there,” he said. “Dave (Gloman) and I tend to hike out deep into the woods for some of our work.”

As Gregory writes in the exhibit notes, “Painting outside means dealing with wind, bugs, heat, cold, rain, direct sun, and constantly moving shadows…. It means finding something that grabs your attention … getting your stuff there, setting it all up, working for as long as you can, then breaking it all down, packing it up, and finally transporting a wet and fragile picture back to the studio.”

But when that all comes together, he adds, it can lead to an artwork “that is fresh and more than simply a painted image, a thing that not only transports us behind the eyes of the artist, but can validate our own experiences.”

Gregory said the show, which runs through March 28, will include roughly three-dozen paintings of varying sizes that will be grouped by theme and setting rather than by specific artists. “It’s not going to be five separate solo exhibits,” he said with a laugh.

More information about the exhibit and A.P.E. Gallery is available at apearts.org. Visitation is limited to eight people at a time. 

The view from above 

Another exhibit of note that has opened this month is “Birds-Eye Views” by Northampton oil painter Bruce Ackerman, who will show his work at Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst through May 14. In-person visits are only available to members of the UMass community, but the exhibit can also be viewed online.

It’s worth checking out, because Ackerson’s richly colored paintings, presented from an overhead standpoint and resembling miniature stage sets, have an almost cinematic feel; they cover imaginative subjects ranging from the surreal to the absurd to the mysterious. He can poke fun at popular culture or portray family dramas or, as exhibit notes put it, explore “the hidden world of the human psyche.”

“Spaghetti Night!” depicts a family of five in a sprawling, modern-looking home, with three children seated at a table, while to the side mom and dad seem to be either juggling or throwing plates of pasta to one another, with most of the sauce-covered noodles headed to the floor.

In “Boxcar Getaway,” a man leaps from a cliff to a train on tracks just below while two men in suits and ties hustle after him through woods at the edge of the cliff.

And “Joggers” shows several men in bathing suits running up a curving, sandy path; just around the bend and partly hidden by small hill of grass and sand is a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex, its jaws wide open and waiting. The runners can’t see him — but we can.

“The visual and the narrative go hand in hand in my paintings,” Ackerson says in an artist’s statement. “I want to offer thrills for the eye and the mind…. The birds-eye view allows a variety of angles and perspectives.”

An interview with the artist via Zoom will take place April 9 at noon. More information on Hampden Gallery is available at (413) 545-0680.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.