Douglas Witmer at Gallery Siano

(above, Douglas Witmer, Garden Spot, 2006)

My good friend and consummate artist Douglas Witmer has a series of stunning new paintings hanging right now at Gallery Siano, on Arch Street between Third and Fourth in Philly. I was there briefly for the opening, and was very impressed; following are a few thoughts which have congealed since then.

Soon after I had entered the gallery, a little girl of four or five walked in, and said to her daddy that the painting directly in front of them "looked like a waterfall." I had just gotten there, but I decided that I agreed with her: I'm always grateful for a child's fresh perspective; partly because they naturally speak before they think; before their raw thoughts pass through the cultural and contextual filters which are eventually formed in us. It just comes out: blahh, like so. And we all know that particular discomfort that some childish comment has brought to a social situation; a faux pas that we usually laugh off.

Yet, I didn't laugh this comment off, and it actually got my thoughts rolling about two things, one following more or less naturally from the other: memorials, and landscapes.

Both of these things I've written about before, but in Witmer's paintings they run along side each other nicely. When I say "memorial", I'm referencing the word's origin or relation to "memory", and referring less to the solid edifices or wordy epitaphs that the word may normally bring to mind. And when I say "landscape", it is also in a slightly less traditional manner; I speak of it as a record of a particular place, but definitely rooted to a physical, tactile experience.

A year or more ago, I remember first hearing of Witmer's interest in thinking about "what his work is for." And, Douglas, I think I've discovered at least a small part of that "for-ness." These paintings are definitely rooted in an experiential place; each one, through various routes--color, title, composition, etc--are intrinsically connected to a happening or event or Thing; what we'll call a memory. And those memories are recorded, or captured in a sense, in these works, for all of us to partake of and participate in. This is where I think part of that "for-ness" is; these works function as a beautiful memory of a "landscape" that can speak in either a general or specific way to anyone who stands in front of them, and gives something of themselves to the painting, and the viewing experience. It does speak to the pureness of the artistic deed, in that something so personal can become practically universal. And this is what the best of memorials do; even a foreign visitor, unacquainted with a memorial's specific "memory" can still look in awe at a good memorial, and realize; absorb the importance, the gravity, the beauty and presence of what that memorial stands for. They can feel the memory.

That points to another reason why Witmer's paintings are so good at memory-sharing: he chooses to use the reductive language of abstraction; the laconic speech of simplicity and spare composition. When an artist uses a reduced expression, the possibilities are greater for communication, but the challenges to clarity are greater; exponentially increasing each time something is taken away or reduced to its simpler form. And Witmer is on his way to making this a science--in the best meaning of the term, which loops back to art--while still leaving so much for the viewer to relish: the musicality of obscured drips under a layer of charcoal paint; the finest thread of bright pink juxtaposed between a felty gray and everyone's favorite red; a transparent spring yellow, in Primer, which at one moment sings like a sun-lit leaf, and the next gives you a crabapple-sour taste in your mouth; the jaunty tilt, in Cardinal, of a color bar, sitting on the canvas like its namesake bouncing on a thin twig.

So, at least I have found partly what Witmer's paintings are for, for me: memorial-landscapes to which, each time I experience them, I add my own brick of delight to the memorial, building my part of them even grander and more heartfelt. They are a greater source of enjoyment the closer you draw to them. Which sounds a little like nature, no?

http://www.douglaswitmer.com/blog/2006/11/exhibition-views.html

Crystal  – (Saturday, 11 November, 2006)  

I don't know how well the true color of the painting comes across in pixels, but I LOVE that green. It's cool and deep and melting simultaneously. I almost can't look at it for too long.

Rob Matthews  – (Sunday, 26 November, 2006)  

I just made it down to Gallery Siano on the last day of the show. Great stuff. I was most into Cardinal, Garden Spot and Marquee Moon (the latter because probably because I love that song).
There was also a small green one that I thought was strong but I didn't get the name of it unfortunately.
Cardinal grabbed me particularly because of the vibration the red, orange and gray created in the top half.
Thanks for the heads up Tim.

Douglas Witmer  – (Monday, 27 November, 2006)  

Hi there--
First...thanks again, Tim, for this terrific essay. Rob, the green one you mention is called "Little Green," titled after the song on Joni Mitchell's "Blue."

Marquee Moon is one of my favorite albums, by the way.

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