The word "formal" has two meanings when applied to Henry Coe's landscape paintings at C. Grimaldis Gallery.
There's formal as in orderly, correct and ceremonial, as a formal dinner or a formal wedding. Coe's paintings have always had that kind of formality. Their buildings and fields and other elements often look carefully placed to create a composition that's just so.
The result can be satisfying when not overly obvious. In "Five Buildings," the buildings are placed across the canvas in a pleasing asymmetry. They work to carry the eye from left to right, while the trees and telephone poles that recede from foreground to background work to carry the eye into the distance. All these objects establish a nicely balanced picture, but not one that announces its intentions too loudly.
In "Hilltop Cemetery," on the other hand, the rows of gravestones, the brown patches of field, the building near the center of the picture and a row of trees in the distance all conspire to form a triangular composition that's just too regular and pat. It's hard for the eye to stop focusing on the triangle and wander around in the scene.
Then there's the other kind of formal, the one that artists mean when they speak of the formal aspects of a work of art. They mean those elements that formed it. Composition is one of them, but so are line, color, and gesture.
In some of his new paintings, Coe lets us notice those aspects more than he used to. He adds "This is how I do it" to "This is what it looks like." And that's a virtue, for he encourages the viewer to zoom in on the picture and study its details, even to the point of losing sight of an annoyingly contrived composition.
An appealing looseness of brush stroke enlivens the ground in such pictures as "Five Buildings," "Receding Clouds" and "Unseen Trees." In the first of those, the artist pulls the brown of earth up to mingle with the orange of a building's side, as if to say: "See? The picture may look like buildings and earth and sky, but it's really only paint."
In "Tuckahoe Farm," the side of a building, partly in shadow and partly in sunlight, becomes a study in gray and white. The shadow thrown by trees on the front of the building consists of squiggles of black, gray and white that take on a life of their own when seen up close.
Sometimes even Coe's contrivances work well. In "Hen Island," trees, building, rock and patches of bare ground can be read as an abstract arrangement of geometric forms, mainly triangles. In "Overgrown House," the building's browns and greens echo those of the landscape, so that nature gradually appears to reclaim the sovereignty over this particular place that has been too long usurped by the house.
Coe is at his most artificial-looking with "Sardine Cannery, Stonington," so dressed up and posed that it looks like an official portrait commissioned by the subject. But other paintings, such as "Deer Island Fog" and "Mid-Summer," possess an atmosphere so palpable that one can almost reach out and grab hold of it. And his light can be arresting, especially in "Picture Window."
What's ultimately winning about Coe's pictures is the sense that the artist lets the viewer see what he's all about, his flaws as well as his merits. It's as if he's saying: "This is my vision. You don't like my compositions? Well, you've said that before. But they're part of what my painting is, and you must take it or leave it." And such disarming candor inclines one, in the end, to take it.
Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 30
Pub Date: 11/19/97