The moonligh shines — Current Exhibition of Unknown Blakelock at National Academy

No word than the nature dreamer can better describe Blakelock, whose poetic paintings are now exhibited in National Academy. “The Unknown Blakelock” brings some of the key works of Ralph Albert Blakelock from the museums and collectors of the country into the National Academy. 

The three moonlight paintings, one of the two major subjects that associated with him, were hung side by side in the gallery. The silhouetted massive trees, the greenish bluish sky, and the high-keyed moon of heavily impasto vividly display mysterious scenery which is at once intimate, personal yet surreal. It is almost monochrome. Its two dimensional graphic pattern was laid down on super rugged surface: the texture itself provides an additional layer of viewing: abstract, accidental yet fascinating like a magic spell.

The scales of the paintings are medium or small, yet my heart was still immersed in the poetic moon light when I stepped out of the museum after the research on Henry Golden Dearth in the museum archives. I knew a second visit was a must. It didn’t take me that long to go back: in fact only about 24 hours. Daingerfield, his first biography writer remarked that Blakelock only depicted two phases of nature: twilight and moonlight. If so, moments of solitude and silence are a requisite of appreciation. For a long time, there were only Eric and me surrounded by the paintings of Blakelock. (Though next to Guggenheim, the National Academy was not crowded on Saturday.)

There are two pieces of facts that really contrast with the underappreciated status of the artist and draw my attention: Blakelock is the one of the most forged American artists if not the most forged artist in America. And his work in the collection of National Academy and Sheldon Museum of Art are among the favorites of the artist members and local practicing artists.

However, Blakelock stands by himself as one of the less known artists from art history point of view: A follower of Hudson River School at his early career; an outsider of the Barbizon school. And even though was paired with Ryder for the abstract patterns, forms in their works, in general only Ryder is credited as the precursor of the American abstract modernism.

In those moonlight or twilight paintings, I saw the sculpted layers of paint being built up and scrapped down and the forming of paint partially by consciousness, partially by subconsciousness and accidents. No doubt Blakelock lived in his own realm which is quite different from those of Barbizon school: Dwight Tryon and Alexander Wyant belong to the old world, even though they have abandoned the keen observation of nature and favored a more evocative personal expressiveness. Blakelock, by painting from his internal feeling and insights, had gone further to show the dream world that did not has its prototype in the real world. If Henry Ward Ranger dabbed the color with varnish to advance the range of oil paint from translucent to opaque, Blakelock’s obsess with the ruggedness of canvas anticipated the 20th century modern art when the surface structure of paint speaks as loud as the content itself.

There are other works that surprised me by their being un-Blakelock. A painting of sunset with seals has dazzling colors: The warm orange red on top of blue sky and sea water is not something untypical. However, if the pattern of the tree branches surrounded by the yellowish cloud echoes Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in his painting which bears the same title, here the range of the colors that he adopted plays dramatic music scores. (I could almost hear the hymn of the splendid sunset sung by those seals painted suggestively.) A still life painting of bee on thistle blends the hi-fi effect of blowing up details with its mysterious background. It does not have the exactness and perfection as Georgia Keefe, but the light pinkish/purple flower out of the hazed dark green accented by a oversized bee is so audacious in its high-contrast that highly decorative flowers boldly attacked by John Lafarge would look from the old world.

The second room in the exhibition displayed works in a more coherent style. The Pegasus with a few others seems to be more about patterns, forms and shapes than what they really represent. A few were painted probably in a rush that the wood panel corner was left unpainted; others seem to have lost the original colors due to the coal tar ingredient used by Blakelock. (His paintings must be disastrous project from conservator’s point of view.) The moonlight owned by and Sheldon Museum of Art, hung above fireplace of the room. If color (or devoid of color) and music can be used to describe the three moonlight paintings grouped together in the first room, this undated moonlight reminds me of late Blakelock’s mental illness. The clouds around the moon bear striking contrast between fire-burning neuroticism and suppressive coldness. Like the thistle, the clouds popped out visually and physically. I looked up: it was hung high and not much detail can be obtained. The natural light shone onto the surface, but the night is still dark, irresistible and chilled my spine. It is a lonely night, and like his other paintings, there exudes a sense of unease and insecurity. Beyond that, words fail; only emotion stirs like the burning clouds. A plaque on the painting next to it comments:

What if the clouds one short dark night, hide the blue sky until morn appears
When the bright sun that cheers soon again will rise to shine upon earth for endless years

The Unknown Blakelock is on view at National Academy Museum till Jan 4, 2009.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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