Hidden and Apparent Figures in Sag Harbor

Figurative art at Grenning Gallery
“New Town” by Stephen Bauman has the somewhat flattened and haloed effect of a religious icon. Grenning Gallery Photos

After a holiday show of small works from its gallery artists, the Grenning Gallery is greeting the new year with another show at its new space shared with Black Swan Antiques on Main Street in Sag Harbor.

For those who liked the jewel box space the gallery formerly occupied next to Ruby Beets on Washington Street, with its quirky nooks and crannies, the new space will seem more formal and somewhat austere. It helps the art in some ways, but may limit it in others. 

The room is long and narrow and feels a bit like a tunnel. It’s difficult to move far enough back from the larger paintings to really take their measure. It may promote a feeling of claustrophobia. At the same time, the walls are tall and there is plenty of light and air vertically, which helps the paintings breathe in their salon-style installation.

Laura Grenning favors realist painters from the academy who have been mostly overlooked in the century since the advent of Modernism. She has been making a case for figurative art by determinately showing it for many years in Sag Harbor and Wellington, Fla. This show, open through Feb. 10, approaches figuration more literally, showing academy-style paintings of the human form or those notable due to its absence.

“Has the world seen enough figurative paintings? We don’t think so,” she asserted in a press release. “We believe that after 100 years of modernism, abstraction, and conceptualism, it is time to return to reality.”

So, without ironic distancing, conceptual manipulation, outrageous or absurd juxtapositions of a naked form into otherwise buttoned-up surroundings, or other contemporary approaches, the gallery has a raft of paintings chosen purely for their beauty and craft. It’s essentially like entering the 19th and early-20th-century rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the clothing, when it exists, is contemporary, as are the settings. It’s rather relaxing.

The artists contributing to the show will sound familiar to those who follow the gallery: Ben Fenske, Marc Dalessio, Stephen Bauman, Ramiro, Maryann Lucas, Anthony Ackrill, John Morfis, Carl Bretzke, and Nelson H. White. Also in the mix are Alyssa Monks and Kelly Carmody, who are less familiar. 

The show reminds us not to presume that figurative painting is always the same. Aside from its more encompassing genres, which can include human forms, animals, interiors, landscapes, and still lifes, among others, styles vary widely. Very few if any of the works at Grenning are instances of Photorealism. The style here could be broadly and accurately defined as naturalism, with a painterly approach often heavy on the brushwork, but not always.

Mr. Bauman’s female portraits and busts are fully clothed and modeled in shade and shadow. Yet they are reminiscent of religious icons, which can be flat or generalized, depending on the source and period. His “New Town” painting, with a woman looming above an urban landscape with a suggested halo of light around her, sets the tone for this suite of works. Once seen, the rest of the paintings cannot help but be considered through the same lens. 

Ramiro’s female subjects have a similar hard-edged finish, although he filters light beautifully across his nudes, which he sometimes casts as allegories. “Allegory of Chopin (Nocturne)” features a nude form from the waist up with her mouth open as if she might be singing. A hand is raised by her ear, perhaps to hear better, and her other hand points to something to the left of the canvas.

“Nude,” which shows the backside of a female figure lying on a bed in an otherwise dark space, looks cast in stone, with a jutting hip bone that seems an exaggeration, as if the top part of her figure doesn’t belong to the bottom half. Yet Ramiro, too, uses a sketchier, Renoir-ish approach in a set of smaller, perhaps preparatory paintings and a couple of larger, easel-size works.

Mr. Bretzke’s loose style here tends to eschew human figures in favor of automobiles, buildings, and other subjects. He has a charming rendition of the entrance to Sag Harbor Village and a smallish tour de force painting of the play of light on puddles and over a car through windows in a parking garage. The effect is reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s fascination with light and reflections, and it also draws attention to a mundane scene that would otherwise escape notice. When he does contribute a figure or figures, as in “Painter Friend and Friend,” the effect is still pleasant to the eye, but not as compelling.

A series of mostly abandoned beach umbrellas, set out in the bright light of midday and offering shade and respite from the sun, are some of the most enchanting works. After a bleak and wearying fall and winter, these bright and colorful offerings by Mr. White, in watercolor and oil, mostly realistic but sometimes bordering on the Expressionistic in brushstroke and the generalization of subject matter, may be the best part of the experience in a room that offers much to appreciate and admire.

Mr. Fenske is another artist whose loose brushwork appears to be more of a piece with American Impressionism and the earliest of tendencies toward abstraction. His work echoes the Ashcan School or the even looser brushwork of Childe Hassam. Viewing his “Summer Afternoon,” it’s difficult not to think of Cezanne in the palette and flattened masses of the landscape. The still life on the patterned tablecloth maintains its illusionistic place in space, but not as strictly as some might expect. The screen or shutter to the right of the door is handled so summarily that it barely looks like it would work if closed. 

This is a painting that flirts so closely with modernism it may even spend the night. It serves as a brilliant reminder that the impulses toward realism and abstraction have often worked as reactions to each other or simultaneously throughout history, from classicism to medieval art, Renaissance art to Mannerism, Picasso’s nearly simultaneous Cubist and neoclassical paintings, Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism to Pop, and so on.

Ms. Grenning is right to champion their artistry as well as their craft. The academy will live on, as it has for hundreds of years, outlasting the trends and fads that have come since and providing us a touchstone, a soothing place to which we can always return.

In “Allegory to Chopin (Nocturne),” Ramiro appears to reference both listening and perhaps singing.