A Brush with Nature: The Latest Work of Jan Lutz
Enchanted landscapes and natural figures at City Gallery
I have been familiar with the local artist Jan Lutz's work for quite some time. From Northwest Pennsylvania Artist Association (NPAA) group shows to her own gallery in Cambridge Springs, I knew her distinct style of figurative work and landscapes but had not seen examples of her work in person for a few years. When I read she was showing downtown at City Gallery, I was interested to see what Lutz had been working on recently.
The new show is a mix of landscapes and figures implemented in both oil and watercolor. Much of the work seems to reference local areas, with a couple of exceptions. One exception is a beautifully rendered watercolor of cliff dwellings – possibly the Mesa Verde structures in Colorado – that starts with a detailed drafting of the architecture in the central area of the painting, then erodes into the blurred geography and cloudy atmosphere that has become one of Lutz's signature handlings of negative space.
She uses this technique to give a dream-like quality to other works such as Upon the Quiet Surface, which features a boat being enveloped by a morning mist and Autumn, Presque Isle, which too has a soft aura in its simple landscape. Lutz is directing the viewer with her use of focus. We see in detail what she deems to be the most critical areas of the painting, while the less significant areas seem to evaporate before our eyes. This method of having the picture disintegrate as it moves from the central focus enhances the overall spiritual quality of Lutz's paintings, a quality that mixes mysticism and romance. The artist is looking at nature with an enchanted view of the world, and when she does introduce a figure into these spaces, the figure is intertwined with the natural elements.
Shades of Morning by Jan Lutz
Symbiosis, a larger watercolor that features a figure sprawled upon the base of a great tree, visually connects the limbs of the woman and the swirling mass of roots that she lies upon. In The Message, a young girl sits with a large crow. The title suggests a symbolic meaning: is the presence of the crow a sign of an upcoming change, as many spiritualists believe? Here again we have an impression of enchantment. In Lutz's world, people do not just pass through nature; they mesh with its presence. The paintings are quiet, with soft colors, soft textures, and convey an overall feeling of tranquility.
One of Lutz's greatest strengths is her talent for watercolor. She can create a distinctive, enveloping, and gentle feel with the medium that enhances her subject matter. Whether it is the clouds that surround a figure or the mist that swirls into a landscape, Lutz is adept at making the airiness of the climate come through on the paper. I cannot say I feel as positive about her oils. There is a stiffness that I could not look past – the changing and shifting of the elements she conjures with watercolor are not there in oil.
An aspect of the show that I found unexpected was the narrative, or intended lack of, in many of the pieces. A figure wading out into a stream, a girl high up in a tree, men cutting hay – none of these had me continuing the story in my mind. Their presence was part of the scenery as if they were supposed to be there: stationary, set into the landscape. The girl was as much part of the tree as the leaves and the limbs. The hay would never be harvested. It was as if time had stopped. Perhaps it was the calmness of the faces or the soft feel of the landscapes, but the people were at peace in their fixed positions.
I left the show with an understanding of how much the artist has invested in the landscape around her. She sees the natural world with such a romantic vision of its beauty that it compels the viewer to see that radiancy as well. At least in these paintings, her vision focuses not so much on details of nature but rather on the sense of nature as a big, dominant picture. The size of a tree compared to the person climbing it, a mountain range seen from a distance, a long road running to the horizon – these pictures and others are there to remind us of our place in the world.
Jan Lutz: A Sense of Place runs through July 28 // City Gallery, 1503 State St. // Hours and info: facebook.com/citygalleryerie