Looking at Henry Coe's paintings at Grimaldis the other day, I felt as if I were listening to two people having an argument about this art, with some merit on both sides. Let's call them Viewer A and Viewer B.
A: When I look at Henry Coe's landscapes of rural Maryland, I think that's the way rural Maryland ought to look.
B: And that, to me, is precisely what's wrong with them. They're too calculated.
When you look at a work of art and say to yourself that's the way such and such ought to look, the statement you're really making is that the work of art looks artificial.
A: No I'm not; I'm saying the opposite, actually -- that Coe makes his landscapes look almost more natural than the real thing.
Come over here and look at "Waning Summer," for instance.
See how natural those grasses look in both light and shade.
Then look at the trees in "Seeking Shade," at the volume they have. And how, in "July Haze," Coe has managed to capture the way it seems as if you can actually see the air on a certain kind of hot day.
Then look at what he does with water, in "Early Morning on Deer Creek" and "Evening in Early March."
It looks like water; it's not the tour-de-force, showy but essentially fake water that too many painters paint.
And when he does an evening or a morning sky, or a midday sky as in "North of Hess Road," it really does evoke that time of day.
Notice how much color he gets into the foreground of "Blackwater Parish."
B: Yes, yes, I see all that.
And I'll also grant that Coe resists prettiness and sentimentality. But I maintain that his pictures are too
Look at your grasses in "Waning Summer" -- that light and shade you speak of are so obviously meant to pull your eye back from the foreground into the distance.
It's Coe's compositions above all that steer his pictures into artificiality.
They jump out at you, and they fall into patterns: a massing of trees with one large balanced by a medium and a small, as in "Seeking Shade," "Waning Summer" and "July Haze"; or a line going roughly across the center balanced by a line going back into the distance, as in "Afternoon Sunlight, Early February," "Clear Day in Late Winter" and "First of May."
Of course, Coe is not alone in this.But when the device becomes obvious instead of contributing unobtrusively to the picture's totality, it diminishes rather than enhances the work of art.
And there's something else I find wanting about Coe's paintings.
When I look at them I see a lot of talent, but I don't see the artist's soul.
These paintings are good as far as they go, but they're not deep.
A: Well, that's your problem.
You ought to learn to judge a work of art in terms of how well it does what it does, not on the basis of some preconceived notion of what it should do.
Coe is good at what he does; in fact he's better than when he showed here two years ago, and that's what's important to me.
B had his mouth open to say something more, but at that point I left, thinking it better this time around to give A the last word.
0$ The next time around, who knows?
What: "Henry Coe: New Paintings"
Where: The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through Oct. 30
Call: (410) 539-1080