In Farm's Way

Thanks to Thomas G. McNickle's tired approach to landscape painting, there's mold in them thar hills.

The current exhibit at GSI Fine Art, a selection of watercolors and oils by Thomas G. McNickle documenting the Amish farmland and surrounding environs of Volant, Pennsylvania, is guaranteed to fade into the woodwork. Though these bales of hay look like the real thing, and the sunrises and sunsets are vivid enough to get your circadian rhythms out of whack, there is a prevailing sense of blandness about this work. For all its well-calculated color combinations and attention to meteorological detail--getting the light right seems a particular obsession--McNickle's detailed tour of rural byways falls flat because there just isn't enough going on in this land to justify his methodical exploration of it.

McNickle, a 55-year-old Pennsylvania native, has had a number of one-man shows in well-respected venues, like the Butler Institute of American Art in Salem, Ohio. He has exhibited in New York and has had a close association with the Jerald Melberg Gallery in North Carolina. He's also something of a mystic, if a statement accompanying the exhibit is any indication. "Painting," the artist writes, "requires belief more than knowledge. The knower and the known must be joined on a common ground of being. It is about that which comes through the oneness of stillness and not having, of going nowhere in the timeless moment." Unfortunately, the works on display at GSI are sometimes as murky as this bit of prose.

The central problem is that McNickle's paintings strain to be dramatic when, at their essence, they're anything but. One recalls composer Peter Warlock, who described the English pastoral school as "a cow looking over a gate"--genial but uneventful. Warlock probably liked "Greensleeves" as much as the next Englishman, but his point--that a song does not a symphony make--is well made. Having a feel for country life and folk tunes is okay for an artist who is content to remain a miniaturist. However, try to create large-scale works of art using the same materials, and you're asking for trouble.

McNickle is essentially a miniaturist, meaning he seizes on one thing (examining the qualities of light) and then attempts to do it very well. And there is a small window of opportunity where his expressive capabilities and his technique come into alignment. For instance, he's generally comfortable with Amish farm scenes. He paints the whitewashed buildings and the grain silos with a simple elegance, and the restraint displayed in one such work, "Late Afternoon Shadows," is palpable.

Unlike the American regionalist painter Grant Wood, who in 1930s landscapes with earnest titles like "Fall Plowing" and "In the Spring" seemed to suggest that waking up at 4:30 in the morning and tending fields were prerequisites for a moral life, McNickle eschews homespun verities for pictorial problem solving. If he thinks, as Wood apparently thought, that there is nobility in early rising, his paintings remain mum on the subject. There's a refreshing lack of social commentary in works like "Winter Evening--Cut Corn," in which a field of corn turns into a discordant combination of warm orange stalks and aqua-tinted farmland.

McNickle is far less convincing when he tries to be an heir to nineteenth-century American artists like Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt, whose forest glades and mountains were heavily weighted with religious feeling. Painters of the so-called Hudson River School didn't believe that every object of nature could be the subject of a painting. They chose their locations with care and only then, only after they perceived a location's spiritual potential, did they proceed to paint. McNickle's works in this vein, by contrast, lead one to wonder: "Why did he choose to paint that?"

A case in point is "End of the Storm," a large oil painting depicting a brooding sky that's one part sunlight and several parts purple and dark blue. The landscape in the foreground, all muted greens and blues, is contrasted with this insistent sky, and the entire canvas is reminiscent of the similarly themed oils that Frederick Church executed in the 1850s. But where Church transformed nature into a threatening power whose destructive force was often symbolized by gnarled, windswept trees on either edge of the frame, McNickle's spring showers are merely picturesque. It didn't matter in a Church canvas that there were no people; nature was obviously the main character. By comparison, one yearns for signs of human life in McNickle's work; his version of nature seems incomplete without it.

Despite McNickle's insistence that "painting is not empirical or problematic" (a statement that provides the scaffolding for his subsequent claim that the act of painting is mysterious and ought to be viewed that way by all its practitioners), there is a sense in much of this work not of metaphysical questing, but of technical problems recognized and then surmounted. For instance, "River Mist at Sunrise" seems to be about the change that occurs in the color of branches and twigs when the early morning sun hits them; these in turn are contrasted by trees not similarly affected.

Here, too, one notices a quirk that is a constant in all of the nineteen works on display at GSI: McNickle is not one for the close-up. He sees everything from a distance. The main items of visual interest, whether they be haystacks, trees, or a farmhouse, are either in medium shot or long shot. What's worse, the perspective in all of this work is the same: It's impersonal, as though one is looking down on the world from one of the rolling hills that sometimes appears in McNickle's backgrounds. If McNickle varied his proxemic patterns a bit more, the view would be a lot less monotonous.

McNickle's habit of viewing the world from afar might have something to do with his decision to leave human beings out of his work. The Hudson River painters often did the same thing, but sometimes, if you look real hard, you can see an Indian nestled in the foliage or a grizzled explorer peering over a mountain ledge. They were placed there not merely to provide a sense of scale, but to suggest how the untamed American wilderness held out promise for a new breed of intrepid individualists.

If McNickle's point is to suggest that human life always means potential despoliation of the land and that, in art, one can forestall the inevitable encroachment of modern civilization on the lives of the Amish--whose farms appear regularly in his paintings--he needs to develop a wider repertoire of images that help to flesh out these concerns. As it is, this art doesn't do much with the Amish theme. How does McNickle view them? Are their homes and farms merely props in a wider effort to solve technical problems dealing with light and shade? Why Volant and not someplace else? The art need not answer these questions to everyone's satisfaction, but attempting to address such concerns might, in the future, lend technically accomplished work some thematic point.

McNickle is not wholly insensitive to such issues. One interesting feature of his work at GSI is the way his oblong rectangular canvases (lengths of some works are nearly three times their width) echo the emphasis on horizontal lines in his work. The viewer takes in the work as one would survey a wide stretch of land; it's an economical way of suggesting that the principle concern is with the general landscape and not the details that inform it. Unfortunately, this device becomes tiresome. In small doses it can reinforce a theme; repeated ad nauseam, it becomes a gimmick.

Landscapes by McNickle have been purchased by large accounting firms, banks, and law offices all over the country, and one can understand why. They are technically accomplished and they are easy on the eyes. With more thematic focus and a liberal dose of vitality, this never-less-than-professional work could move on to a higher level.

Glenn Gould, the eccentric Canadian pianist who gave up a stellar concert career in his mid-thirties because he detested performing in public, was known for his idiosyncratic interpretations. Once asked why, in a performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations that was otherwise exceedingly slow, he took one section so jarringly fast, he responded, "I didn't like it enough to play it slowly." There's something to be learned from that comment--rich material should be savored, not punched out--and the current GSI exhibit is one place to learn it. There is simply not enough going on in these nineteen works to reward one's close attention. When Gould took his time, he brought subtle treasures to the fore; when McNickle takes his time in Volant, he just underlines the obvious.

Common Ground, Landscape Metaphors, through July 2 at GSI Fine Art, 1240 Huron Road, 216-363-0000.

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