Turn the past into the future: ‘Radical Traditionalism' opens at Berkshire Museum

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PITTSFIELD -- Still lifes and landscapes have been the foundational stuff of Western painting for 500 years, and much of contemporary painting has been about trying to get as far away from them as possible because artists feared there wasn't much more to say.

But the Berkshire Museum's new exhibition, opening Friday, wants to remind visitors that such durable genres have plenty to offer if looked at the right way. "Radical Traditionalism" highlights the work of two regional artists who prove that engagement with the past doesn't mean giving up on the future.

Both Janet Rickus and Colin Brant are deeply informed by past masters but not restrained by them. Rickus paints meticulously crafted images of fruit and vegetables whose simple presentation leaves open many questions and ideas. Brant's lush summery landscapes use familiar images from the past to create something new and strange. They are as different as looking at a familiar object on a desk, or looking out the window of an unfamiliar hotel room.

But the exhibit's guest curator, Carol Diehl, said she was inspired to bring their work together by what they have in common.

"I feel they're related in the way they take traditional subject matter and make it very contemporary and personal," she said.

Maria Mingalone, the Berkshire Museum's director of interpretation, said the show fits the Museum's mission.

"We're always making these kinds of connections between the arts and science," she said. "There is a focus on creativity, innovative thinking, and process and how they connect disciplines."

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Rickus, who lives in Great Barrington, has been working in her signature styles since the early 1980s. She said she gets ideas from everyday life, from the supermarket and farmers markets. In her studio, she arranges her subjects under light from a north-facing window, and she uses photographs to help arrange the individual pumpkins, sweet potatoes, onions or lemons.

She presents the subjects with photographic detail, carefully crafted colors and lines. They are often arranged on linens, and presented about life-sized and at eye level. In such a way, they have a certain dignity. They are free of the heavy allegorical density of, for example, the great Dutch masters of the 17th century, in which an hourglass exists to signal the fleeting nature of time, or a dog appears to symbolize fidelity, and so on.

"I don't paint objects because of their value," she said. "I paint them because I like them."

From such a deceptively simple start, a flood of connections and quick narratives almost automatically emerge. There is a sense of humor or whimsy in the images, which almost demands that you make up a story for them -- pears that look like a football huddle, a pumpkin that seems to collapse exhausted on a pillow.

Rickus said part of the appeal of produce is that they capture a moment in time. "Everyone sees fruit all the time," she said. "But there is a whole cycle behind that fruit that is front of you."

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Brant is an artist who lives in North Bennington and New York, whose recent work are incredibly detailed imaginary landscapes. He said he has been recently interested in French painting, particularly the 18th century landscapes by Rococo painters like Antoine Watteau and later works by the Impressionists. He has mixed this with an ongoing interest in schools of self-taught, naive American painting of the 1800s.

Brant said he imagines his landscapes in the studio and doesn't represent real places, and he gives them curious twists by the placement of characters within the scene. Sometimes, they are hard to find -- it takes a second look to see what's going on in "The Duel." Other times, the figures nearly overtake the scene. In his "Bathers / Pavilion" and "Bathers / Boulders," he focuses on nude figures inspired by Auguste Renoir's famous takes on the subject.

The scenes begin down one path and switch back abruptly. In one landscape, a man with a guitar plays for a girl in a swimsuit in the foreground. But the scene becomes much less exotic when plain suburban houses peek through the thick foliage. The same idea occurs in "Bike Rider," with a blandly modern building hiding in the greenery.

Brant acknowledged his engagement with the "traditional," but he hesitated to hang the label on himself. "There's a whole school of people who carry on like the 20th century didn't happen," he said. "But I'm not one of them."

Indeed, artists and viewers can mindlessly rely too heavily on tradition, which can become lazy, defensive rubbish for people who don't really like art. But shows like "Radical Traditionalism" remind us that what is valuable and vital in the past can create a more rich future.

"Sometimes I see a recycling of ideas in contemporary art," Diehl said. "And I think artists would be wise to go back and look at the wealth of inspiration in art history."

If you go ...

What: Berkshire Museum opens new shows, ‘Radical Impressionism' and ‘Exquisite Illusion: Paintings by Warner Friedman and assemblages by Michael Zelehoski'

When: Opening and conversation with the curators, Saturday, 5 to 7 p.m., moderated by gallerist Geoffrey Young

Where: 39 South st., Pittsfield

Admission: $13 for adults, $6 for children, free for members and children aged 3 and under

Information: (413) 443-7171, www.berkshiremuseum.org


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