Painters working on location have always been a relatively rare sight on the streets of Seattle. In earlier times, when outdoor artists were plentiful in places like Laguna Beach, or Santa Fe, there were fewer artists of any sort in the Northwest. Now that the artistic community has grown along with the rest of the area, plein-air landscape painters are still in short supply — victims of an art marketplace that has moved on to other things, not to mention the famously gloomy climate. Nonetheless, the practice of painting the city scene on the spot still persists, and by coincidence, two of the most skillful local practitioners are on exhibit in separate shows this month.
Michael Stasinos and Christopher Hoff not only paint some of the same locations, they have occasionally painted side-by-side. Their work bears the imprint of two very distinct takes on the city scene. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Earlier painters of the American metropolis — like John Sloan or Edward Hopper — tended to see the city as the ultimate stage for the human drama, the backdrop for tales of loneliness or love, alienation or engagement. Others, like Seattle’s Mark Tobey, portrayed the city as a whirlwind of nocturnal activity, radiant with both psychic and physical energy.
The straightforward and realist view of artists Michael Stasinos and Christopher Hoff expresses neither a sense of the city as a living organism, nor as a setting for a parade of personalities. People, in fact, are notably absent in the work of both artists — this is a Seattle of perpetual Sundays, it’s inhabitants off somewhere else.
What both these artists savor is the challenge of wrestling a sense of formal, pictorial order from the least likely corners of the urban clutter, while still remaining true to its actual appearance. That the search for that order takes place under trying circumstances — battling noise, wind, traffic, rain, and night — is for them a reasonable part of the bargain.
The underlying aesthetic ideal of Michael Stasinos is the radiant city of the early Renaissance, from which he borrows a pellucid summer light and a mood of hard-won serenity. For Christopher Hoff, the grids and colored squares of the hard-edged abstractionists — notably Mondrian — haunt his work, emerging here as row of railroad cars, there as the scaffold of a building under construction.
Stasinos adds to his mix a highly developed sense of irony. In his faithful transcriptions of the fall of summer light on the masonry and metal of the urban core, he keeps his treatment deadpan. Equal weight is given to Les Schwab billboards and Olympic Mountains, glittering Puget Sound and leaning telephone poles. In his largest and most ambitious painting, "Transit Lines," the urban foreground all but overwhelms a romantic, very Hudson River School sunset. Three-quarters of this tall, striking canvas feature the bristling cat’s cradle of trolley wires, turnbuckles and traffic lights above the intersection of Broadway & Pine. On the narrow strip of earth beneath, where Frederick Church or Thomas Cole might have envisioned a homestead or a lake, we find instead, the squat presence of a glowing Chevron station, its blue light the weakest of counterpoints to the celestial glow.
Christopher Hoff finds color not in the sky — a minor element in most of his pictures — but in the grittiest regions of the industrial zone. His best pictures are thinly painted, architectonic arrangements of washy greys, greens, and browns, anchored by a few crisp areas of intensely chromatic color. In "Infrastructure 2," for example, the orange cranes of Harbor Island tower over a highly abstracted foreground of tile-like shipping containers, the cranes in turn framing a series of muted horizontal stripes that concisely describe the familiar sequence of city, hill, and mountain. His sweeping view of the Ballard Bridge is nearly monochromatic, but a startling panel of canary yellow in the lower left corner — the side of a truck — and its miniature echo on a tiny boat in the distance, pulls it all together.
Neither artist has completely solved the dilemma of doing realist landscapes in an era where the mainstream art world could care less. In the case of Christopher Hoff, he is still visibly trying to find a balance between the traditional and the modernist; in this show alone, his canvases run the gamut from semi-abstract, to fully realist, to a sort of hybrid style where etched horizontal and vertical lines disrupt an otherwise literal view. In the case of Stasinos, one anticipates the development of a more distinct viewpoint to accompany his exceptional descriptive skills. Watch for them both on a street corner near you, wrestling with their artistic conundrums in full view of the passing parade.