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Willem de Kooning, the renowned Dutch American abstract expressionist, taught Joan Levy Hepburn that one can travel throughout art history "in a nonlinear path" and that painting doesn't have to be follow a natural progression.
This philosophy is reflected in "Streams," an installation of oil paintings that are the result of Hepburn's 50-plus years of oil painting, art history studies, and more than 30 years as the "Color Doctor," as she's been dubbed for her work in color separation for museum publications throughout the U.S.
Hepburn says her desire is for the viewer to "transcend the physicality of the painting" in this exhibition of her work that opens at the Alexey von Schlippe (AvS) Gallery of Art in Groton on March 14.
"The paint is not just a material that's used to depict a picture, the paint becomes its own reality as a physical material," Hepburn says, "but there are illusions to all different times in art history: cave painting, Pre-Raphaelites, abstract expressionism and every other aspect of painting I've studied throughout the last 50 years."
"Having experienced these stunning paintings in person, I understand what she meant," Julia Pavone director of the AvS Gallery, said in a press release. "You feel the power of the rich earth tone pieces and the depth as they draw you into each layer. You feel as if you are swimming through them. There is the inference of water. They will be presented in the form of an installation, accompanied by the original cello piece that Joan - also an accomplished musician - has created, performed and recorded for them."
The work will be exhibited in one big space with seven large oil paintings, all 3-by-4 feet hanging 360 degrees around the room. A recorded cello composition will be played on a continuous loop to create an audio-visual experience.
"It's a syntheses of the senses from the beginning," Hepburn explains. "You see sounds, you hear colors, you taste colors-everything is connected. The thing about my work is that the paintings are not a rendering of a reality, but they are about how the painting and the paint are an actual reality and when the viewer sees it, they see it like they'd see anything in nature, so it has an effect on their senses, emotions, and psychological state of mind."
Hepburn was mentored by de Kooning from the time she was 15 until he died.
"He taught me painting isn't about being fashionable, a technique, or a style," she says. "Painting is about painting and if done well, it will hold up through the ages.
"I don't make any difference between representational and abstract painting - it's all about painting," she continues. "The main thing I learned from de Kooning was how to see. He taught me the language of vision. Whether you're looking at oil stains on the sidewalk or a Rembrandt, you come to it with no preconception, so you can see it clearly."
In her early 20s Hepburn studied color separation, which she did for museums and galleries around the country.
"My work in color separation allowed me to become intimately involved with handling priceless original art of the centuries, which furthered my personal study of painting and drawing," she says.
"I use color to create actual physical light, not the rendering of the effects of light. I use it in a way that creates its own light," she explains. "So I think about the palette of the physics of light as equally as important as the tool which is the palette of light. And the thing that gave me the title of 'Color Doctor' is that when I make color separations, I kept the integrity of the picture plane intact."
Hepburn has been a painter since early childhood and today teaches at her own school, Art at Murray Pond, in Killingworth. She also has played guitar since she was 10, but says she always wanted to be a cello player, too.
"In 2005 I got a cello and just started playing it and then in 2009 I started taking serious lessons with Christine Coyle at the Community Music School in Centerbrook," Hepburn says. "She's a fabulous teacher. The cello I think is one of the most challenging instruments to be able to play well, but it's also a very romantic instrument. I like the way it vibrates, the tones, and the way you embrace it with your body when you play it. You really become one with the music and the instrument."
In this exhibition, Hepburn points out that the physical aspects of a stream bed, with mud and rocks and plants, is one inspiration that has a sound and a color; when the water flows through it, it has a sound and a rhythm, and then the reflections on top have another sound and rhythm and color.
"It's not just visual or hearing, it's also when you sit by a stream, you have a stream of consciousness," she says, "and also when you look into the paintings and hear music when that meets your consciousness, you have a memory and a history and a dream and a deeper level in your consciousness you can access. It's not just the superficial rendering of the way things look, it's a deeper involvement in the way they feel and the history and memory and dream that they conjure."
A signed, limited-edition exhibition book accompanies the installation with an essay by Richard Schiff that will be available for purchase at AvS or by emailing Hepburn at color email@example.com or calling her at (860) 663-1169. The cost is $25, including tax, and will help fund an art grant so the show can travel.
What: Opening reception for Premier 2014 exhibition. In addition to Joan Levy Hepburn's installation will be an exhibition of pastel paintings by Donna Martell of Norwich and works by Art of Ink in America Society, celebrating different ink forms and the innovative techniques that create them; accompanied by music by the Bill Morrison & Kent Hewitt Jazz Duo
When: Friday, March 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit continues through April 19.
Where: AvS is in the Branford House Mansion, University of Connecticut, Avery Point campus. Groton.
Cost: Members and students are free, non-members, $3.
Information: Call (860) 405-9052.