Doug Fath / Marsha McDonald
James Watrous Gallery in the Overture Center, through July 8
With the summer travel season under way, many of us will be spending time on the highways or in natural places like lakes and forests. Two new side-by-side exhibitions at the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery explore these sorts of American places in ways that are fresh and surprisingly complementary despite their different approaches.
Working from photographs, Madison painter Doug Fath makes small black-and-white paintings of scenes encountered on a cross-country trip: roadside motels, kitschy diners, laundromats and rural vistas. While there's an anonymous, this-could-be-anywhere feeling to much of what he captures in his show "U.S. Road Trip," his titles always mark these as specific places (like "Pile of Rubble, U.S. 50, Utah").
While subjects like Fath's are familiar in documentary photography, it's the translation of these images from their source photos into carefully rendered oil paintings that makes them interesting. Brushstrokes are clearly visible, reflecting the human touch of the artist, yet there is also a dispassionate quality. While run-down motels, abandoned houses and roadside kitsch could be handled in either a socially critical or overtly romanticized way, Fath's approach doesn't come off as either extreme. The quiet objectivity of these paintings leaves them open to multiple reactions.
There is always some element of human intervention in Fath's compositions, even if it's as subtle as a fence line in a rural landscape, but we never see actual people. While "Twistee Treat, Oakley, Kansas" calls to mind kids getting ice cream cones and milling around with their families on a break during a long car trip, in Fath's painting the ice cream stand (itself shaped like an ice cream cone) sits forlornly in an empty parking lot. Fath teases out the contradictions between these happy, kitschy settings and a sense of isolation.
Milwaukee painter Marsha McDonald's show, "Still," forms an interesting counterpoint to Fath's. While his work revolves around manmade places and shades of gray, McDonald explores natural places and rich, luminous color. While Fath's work is realistic, McDonald's is abstracted.
In some instances, McDonald has clustered together several small scenes of the same body of water, allowing for shifting views that are appropriate to a living, changing subject. Larger paintings like "Horicon" have a bolder presence. "Horicon" fairly radiates with a burnished, glowing quality and dramatic contrasts of light and dark.
McDonald's paintings have a meditative, romantic quality. One can think about the marshes, lakes and plants that are her subject matter, or just get lost in her handling of light and color. In her artist's statement, however, McDonald hints at human analogies that can be drawn from her paintings of nature, adding another layer of meaning. Describing "Galium" and "Acer Negundo" (whose titles come from the plants depicted), she comments: "Immigrant and native exist together in the night gardens of Wisconsin."