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Monday, May 9, 2011

Oddball Loners

Art critics and historian, as they try to make sense out of the stretching, folding, spindling, and mutilating of art movements over the past thousand years or so, like to create niches and categories, labels and eras into which they can slip (and sometimes cram) all the various art and artists who have ever lived and worked. Chronology helps, of course, and the fact that artist tend to congregate among their like-minded colleagues into little groups that are the darlings of art historians because they make their work so easy. When that's not the case, these writers have to be creative themselves, making up pigeonholes that seem appropriate, then hunting for artists to stuff into them. And when that doesn't work, usually they simply throw up their hands and label the artist a creative genius in a class by himself, or a talented, oddball loner influenced by few and influencing even fewer.

First Hepaticas, 1917-18, Charles Burchfield
I always enjoy reading and writing about interesting artists from my home state of Ohio (God knows, there aren't that many of them), and Charles Burchfield fits both categories. He was born in northern Ohio, and if ever there was a list of unclassifiable painters he'd be near the top. Born in 1893, Burchfield studied for a time at the Cleveland Institute of Art before moving on the National Academy in New York. It is this illustrious training that undoubtedly lifted his work from the ranks of a talented Sunday painter to the status of "one of a kind". His 1917 watercolor painting, First Hepaticas, is such a personal statement in its macabre landscape as to baffle even the most verbose critic or insightful historian.

Genesee Gateway Block, 1940-47.
Charles Burchfield
Burchfield worked in a factory in Salem, Ohio, and painted only when he had some free time. Perhaps because of this, he was possessed of a number of personal psychological problems that may have caused him to see evil lurking in even the most innocuous blossom or stately tree. His landscapes writhe with a fearsome agony that brings to mind evil, melancholy, insanity, and a brooding sense of foreboding. If fact some of those very elements comprise the names of his paintings.  In the 1920s, Burchfield read Sherwood Anderson's book, Winesburg, Ohio.  From that time on, his artistic focus became centered on the menacing, secretive existence of his own small town in which the long lines of middle-class houses took on some of the same frightening faces of his earlier nature paintings. This glimpse into the workings of a troubled mind, when rendered with such painful sensitivity through his art, is the kind of work that art historians hate to ignore yet have the most trouble grappling with in the context of art in general.
Genesee Gateway Block today

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