LeQuire Gallery | February 10 – March 31
WORDS Margaret F.M. Walker
There is a long tradition of painting en plein air—out of doors—that begins with Claude Monet in the 1870s. The advent of portable paint made it possible, but the airy and vibrant brushstrokes we now call “impressionist” are what made plein-air popular.
Lori Putnam is an internationally recognized painter in this plein-air tradition, and this month, one can study and enjoy her work in Lori Putnam: Across the Board at LeQuire Gallery. While other recent shows have focused on a particular theme, such as her paintings of national parks, this one showcases her wide-ranging interests. Visitors will enjoy looking for both consistent and nuanced elements from one painting to the next, even as the subjects depicted may be quite different. For instance, both Day Hike and Be Mine have a characteristically impressionist facture, lending energy to the natural world. Yet, they diverge compositionally. Day Hike draws us into a scene featuring a craggy mountain surging into the sky as water tumbles down over its rocks. Be Mine, a close-up of a rose bouquet, provides so little context beyond the flowers, pushed out toward the viewer, that it verges on the abstract.
This diversity within Putnam’s oeuvre has come over time, and I particularly enjoyed learning about the start of her career and process of growth into her current working style and methods. Putnam came to art in her 30s, taking weekend and evening classes as a hobby from her day job running a graphic design company. She says of a career in art, “If you do not grow up around it, you do not realize it is something you could do.” She said that those art classes had her hooked “like your first taste of sugar, you just have to have more.” After some time, she sold the business, allowing full-time devotion of her energies to being a student, apprenticing and studying under others such as Dawn Whitelaw, Quang Ho, and Scott Christensen.
“Her emphasis is not on recreating the world as the rest of us see it. Her challenge is to communicate a subject to the viewer with as little information as possible.”
Stylistically, she spent some time painting in a more contemporary realist style, producing highly rendered still lifes, practically devoid of any brushwork. She reflects that this period improved her drawing skills and gave her the knowledge it was something she could do. She recognized that many see the loose brushwork of impressionist painting and wonder about the actual skill of the artist. Plein-air drew her in for many reasons, not least because there is a strong community and market for it.
I asked Putnam about the relationship between her smaller works—painted out of doors—and her larger canvases done in the studio. This, too, has been an important balance to maintain. She had always been told that you learn from the natural world and found that painting outside became less about perfection and more about learning, growth, and fact-finding. She did not want to become a slave to a bad photograph and for quite some time, while working on large canvases in the studio, referenced her sketches primarily, glancing at photographs only when necessary. And yet having time to work in a studio, not hampered by wind and changing daylight, allowed her to experiment more and develop strength in composition and color mixing. This symbiosis means “you can actually create because you are in charge, rather than your resources at hand.” Now, with an eye more honed to seeing pattern and light than a particular scene, she has found that the range of what interests her has grown, too.
Works such as Snow Mass, Bright Spot, and Be Mine verge on abstraction. Putnam tries, in her painting process, to forget the “what” and focus more on shapes, patterns, colors, and rhythms before her. It is still clear from across a room what these paintings are about, but her emphasis is not on recreating the world as the rest of us see it. Her challenge is to communicate a subject to the viewer with as little information as possible. Similarly, some works are of subjects few would call beautiful. Motherlode, for instance, with its mass of geometry and color in an industrial setting is something the artist found interesting more for its visual harmonies than what it actually was. These offer a nice balance to the more traditional plein-air vistas such as Down to the Sea and Looking at Canada.
Putnam is now greatly focused on the next generation of artists, much in gratitude to those who mentored her. She shared that “especially in this day, as art is often cut from schools, I find it important to foster start- up artists, often those who come to this career later, as I did.” Working to keep the tradition of plein-air painting alive, she teaches all over the world and mentors those now in the shoes she formerly filled.
Lori Putnam: Across the Board is showing at LeQuire Gallery February 10 through March 31. A guided tour with the artist is scheduled for March 17 from 1 until 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.lequiregallery.com. See more of Putnam’s work at www.loriputnam.com.