catalog essays

The City Observed, Sordoni Art Gallery, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Oct 2 – November 6, 1994

Although Barry Roal Carlsen, Douglas Safranek and Stuart Shils each create small – format paintings depicting contemporary urban landscapes, their sensibilities, formal concerns and content differ considerably. Carlsen’s pictures of a mid – sized, Midwestern city express a poetic, oneiric sensibility. Safranek’s punctiliously delineated meditations order the discordance and cacophony of New York City. Shils responds simultaneously to the stimuli of a city undergoing constant cycles of decay and rebirth.

…Stuart Shils, on the other hand, relishes the din the noise and the dirt of the city. Working quickly with oils on paper in a painterly, gestural style, his plein air cityscapes capture the transitory and impermanent nature of the urban scene.

Shils has said that his paintings are about the “visual quality of the place.” His is an aesthetic, not a sociological, point of view. Concerned primarily with visual phenomena, he records what he sees but refrains from making overt programmatic or political statements. He invites the viewer to contemplate the scene but, by means of an empty, foreground intermediary zone, keeps the viewer at an aesthetic distance.

Although his palette, which consists primarily of earth colors, recalls that of the Ash Can Painters, he does not share their picturesque view of poverty. Shils lacks the optimism of a Robert Henri or George Luks who viewed poverty as a transitory state populated by individuals whose lives were more raw, more full, more gutsy. Nor does he explore the themes of alienation, loneliness and estrangement, like Edward Hopper, or those of human suffering and pathos, as did Ben Shahn.

In Alley Near Schmidt’s Brewery Shils finds a certain tattered beauty, like that of an old face, reflecting experience and, perhaps, wisdom. Despite having fallen on hard times, his buildings maintain their dignity. Abstract pictorial considerations, however, predominate: the architectonic structure begins to dissolve, forms open up, edges become brushy and indistinct, broad flat areas of paint are rendered expressionistically. As in most of his paintings, the alley is deserted, but no sense of melancholy intrudes.

Throughout the twentieth century, artists have found inspiration in the American city. Despite a wide variety of styles, from the naturalistic interpretations of the Ash Can Painters or the American Scene Painters to the increasingly abstract paintings of the Immaculates, Stuart Davis or Piet Mondrian, the city has fascinated artists. The City Observed demonstrates the continuing vitality of this tradition.

Stanley I Grand, Director