Never-ending (visual) stories: Illustrating the nuances of the ‘Magic Hour’
One example of “panic” might be when an impending museum exhibition suddenly falls through. After all, it’s not one of those sports situations where a starting quarterback — Eugène Delacroix, for example — gets hurt and a replacement — Paul Gaugin, maybe — instantly trots in from the sidelines.
Ready-to-hang, substitute art shows aren’t the sort of things curators typically hold in abeyance.
On the other hand, when, in fact, a soon-to-open exhibit recently canceled at the Mystic Museum of Art, assistant curator Amelia Onorato had a thought on how to save the day: What if she approached her aunt, Old Lyme-based bestselling novelist Luanne Rice, and asked to borrow some paintings from her private collection?
Rice, an art lover whose mother was an artist and frequently took her children to spend quality time visiting the then Florence Griswold House and the New Britain Museum of American Art, was happy to help.
The result is “Magic Hour: Art Between Waking and Dreams,” a show featuring 22 haunting paintings by Maine realist Linden Frederick along with thematically tangential works from members of the Old Lyme and Mystic art colonies. Probing the literal and suggestive boundaries of twilight — also called “The Blue Hour” or “The Gloaming” — the exhibit runs through June 4.
While it’s true that the 37 artworks Rice loaned MMoA suggest the titular motif because they reflect the collector’s often wistful ruminations, it’s also accurate to say that Onorato’s selection of paintings — and the placement thereof within the gallery — provided a strong sense of mood and narrative that Rice had never quite realized.
A revelatory experience
“What Amelia has done with this show made me look at a lot of these paintings in new ways,” Rice says. “And it not only taught me more about the artwork but also something about myself.”
Onorato says, “For a couple of years, I’d been pushing for us to show a collection of Linden’s work. They’re beautiful and I knew they’d present really well here at the museum. I knew Luanne had several of his works, so I pitched the idea and it got approved.”
She and Rice are guiding a visitor through “Magic Hour.” Traveling clockwise, the exhibit starts with a few pieces from the colony artists and then presents Frederick’s work uninterruptedly. The paintings are cleverly laid out in transitory fashion so the viewer “travels” with the artist from late afternoon through twilight and, ultimately, into the rising glide of the moon.
The shifting power of the light and shadow perform a bit of illusory sorcery that wields a powerful aura regardless of the random earthly settings.
Too, there are never any people in Frederick’s paintings. Instead, the depictions might be a foreboding urban alleyway that nonetheless begs a pedestrian’s investigation; a slice of horizon between two houses revealing a grocery store; a winter lighthouse under lunar scrutiny; or an isolated, dark farmhouse with a gleaming Christmas tree glowing through a window.
The scenes are on the surface still and quiet — but never without an uneasy inference that something hidden is going on.
Rice and Frederick know one another, of course. They met in the late 1980s when the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme was showing some of Frederick’s work. Rice was instantly attracted to the paintings and, now laughing shyly in the context that she’s surrounded by Frederick paintings she owns, admits she pawned some jewelry to be able to buy her first small Frederick work.
“Nope,” she says when asked if she was able to redeem her pawn ticket and get the jewelry back. “But that’s fine. It was worth it.”
In an email, Frederick recalls Rice fondly from the Cooley days. He was also on hand for the opening of “Magic Hour.” He writes, “(Luanne) has been a loyal collector ever since. I think her eye for early American landscapes is stellar and it meant a lot to see that part of her collection as well.”
As the gallery tour concludes, the succession of Frederick pieces segues back into selections from Rice’s Old Lyme and Mystic art colonies pieces.
Those artists include George Henry Boughton, Matilda Browne, Emil Carlsen, Lewis Cohen, Bruce Crane, Charles Harold Davis, William Hamilton Gibson, Robert Hogg Nisbet, Wilson Henry Irvine, James Knox, Henry Ward Ranger and Allen Butler Talcott.
By finishing with the earlier works, Onorato skillfully brings home the realization that, for example, Boughton painted “Deserted” around 1858. By contrast, Frederick’s “Cedar Lane” is a 2019 work.
A visitor might well come away with a lingering and not unwelcome feeling of timelessness and the idea that, given the right set of personal experiences, abstractions such as solitude and melancholy can be companionable and even preferable states of being.
“These are of a completely different era and capture very different worlds,” Rice says. “But in all of them, it’s, again, the quality of light. The perspective and depth of the sky. They’re so beautiful and it makes you wonder from the artist’s perspective what they’re thinking about. Even more, it’s like they want the viewer to fill in the blanks.”
Every picture inspires a story
In 2017, after Rice and Frederick had each achieved substantial success, the novelist contributed to the painter’s exhibition in New York City’s Forum Gallery. Titled “Night Stories” and conceptualized by Frederick and another writer friend, the Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Russo, the show featured 15 new oil-on-canvas paintings of stark and slightly unsettling nightscapes.
Russo mobilized an astounding list of writers, each of whom contributed a short story based on his or her assigned painting, and the fiction and artwork were displayed in the gallery. In addition to Rice and Russo, the staggering list of participating authors includes Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, Andre Dubus III, Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen, Lily King, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout and many more.
The New York publishing house Glitterati issued a large hardcover of “Night Stories,” and Onorato says the MMoA was able to secure several copies for sale in conjunction with “Magic Hour.” The books are signed by Rice and Frederick and are available for $45.
Referring to the “Night Stories” exhibition and book, Frederick says, “Authors seem to collect my work and I think I know why: I don’t tell a story. The viewer brings their own story to the work. And so writers look at a painting and start writing in their heads.”
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a writer to come up with his or her own tale to enhance the setting of one of Frederick’s pieces. Sometimes, maybe it’s the artist’s entire body of work that inspires a story — like maybe a story about an assistant museum curator faced with an emergency. Suddenly, she has a huge gap in her exhibition calendar and gets to work. And how does the story end?
At the “Magic Hour.”
What: Magic Hour: Art Between Waking and Dreams
When: Through June 4
Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic
How much: Free
For more information: (860) 536-7601, mysticmuseumofart.org.
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