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Catherine Parker's paintings at the Kenan Center

One of Catherine Parker's paintings of Buffalo's Warefront


The impressionists strove mightily to paint what they saw. Catherine Parker is post-impressionist. She paints not so much what she sees as what she knows.

Such as when in painting starry night skies—which she does frequently—she traces in the lines of constellations among the stars. Or emulating Manet’s trick of bordering volumes with black lines to impart definition, with a delicate swipe of charcoal over base paint gouache, a kind of watercolor, for visual emphasis. (Contemporaries were disturbed by Manet’s black line, because in actuality—that is, in the actual object, not the painting—it isn’t there. But it looks right, Manet found. Just as Parker’s embellishments with charcoal look right. On flowers even.)

An exhibit of her paintings from the last 20 years—but most of them from the last 10 years—is currently on display at the Kenan Center in Lockport. The title of the exhibit is Resonance.

From around 10 years ago, she has several wonderfully, straightforwardly uncomplicated compositional abstractions, including one architectural and two grain elevator views. Her more recent work has become more complex, more narrative, inspired by poems and music. And possibly even film.

A series of works on Bruges, the city in Belgium, in surprisingly dark and even foreboding tones and mood, looks like it could as well have been inspired by the recent noir film In Bruges as by the actual look of the city, which must experience at least occasional moments of daylight sunshine.

But dark is the characteristic tonal value of the recent works. As the signature imagery is of nature. Nature endowed with an extraordinary vital force that infects even the occasional non-natural elements in the painting. A room, a garden pathway, a constructed bower arch over a pathway. Nothing is inert.

It is hard not to see echoes in Parker’s work of the work of her father, the great Charles Burchfield. In the nature obsession in general, in the vitalist vibrational pictorial technique, in the schematic quality of the representation of certain natural phenomena, such as a rainstorm against a mountainside.

(No overt reference is made in the exhibit to this august familial connection. Throughout, the artist is called simply Catherine Parker. But a full-page ad for her work in a glossy national art magazine—geared toward sales—propped on a small table beside some of the paintings, as if perhaps of ancillary interest to the viewers of the main event artwork, announces her name, in big block letters, as Catherine Burchfield Parker.)

But with the poetry and music references, she ventures beyond nature as subject matter to the perhaps equally broad and spacious matter of literary and musical interpretation and homage.

Though still predominantly by way of nature imagery. Trees and woods are constant images. And lush gardens and flowers. Sometimes with a magical realist sensibility. Rarely with a saccharine tinge.

And much as she reprises pictorial images, she reprises narrative motifs. Birds arising into flight, in a raw nature vision from about 1998 of blackbirds above a range of snowy mountains, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, and from 2009 a view of seagulls fluttering above the Buffalo River—framed by grain elevators—of a pristine cerulean blue the river hasn’t displayed since the advent here of the white man, based on a poem by Peter Siedlecki.

But the majority of the recent works are of musical inspiration (albeit music often with accompanying poetical text). Alban Berg, Seven Early Songs; Olivier Messaien, Quartet for the End of Time, written during the composer’s internment in a Nazi prisoner of war camp; and Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, his last work, palpably about the final journey he was preparing to undertake. The darkness is from the source material.

The Messaien series features stairways into the unknown that in one case transmogrify into Shoah-reference railroad tracks. The Berg series dream vision gardens and infinite night skies. The Strauss series woodland scenes of solitude and pairs of songbirds. (“The sky is already darkening./Only a pair of larks still rise/dreamily into the scented air./Come here, and let them fly/for soon it will be time to sleep…”)

This exhibit of beautiful and interesting work continues through November 13.

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