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Duets of Land and Sky

"January (Locked)" by Michael Herbold.

Michael Herbold’s paintings at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

In the post-post-modern pantheon generally, artists have shied away from classical iconography, delivering ironic rhetorical commentary rather than philosophical reflection. Formalist tradition painters, solitary champions of an aesthetic legacy emphasizing the mythic, heroic virtues of classical art—especially en plein air landscapes that encounter nature head-on in arboreal vistas, preferably illustrating ruined structure, bucolic decay, and the general havoc caused by unfettered human ambition—constitute a kind of cult of pristine antiquity. These monk-like mavens of the fine arts have sometimes been criticized as being wary of tackling cultural content in their work, prefering limpéd, luxuriant scenes of the ideally verdant over complex meaning layered in tangled timbered matrices. (This is also true of artists taken with the mischievous conceits of graffiti-generated street art, where polychrome arabesques of meandering enigmatic images often skirt real graphic opportunities for raising genuine concerns for human welfare.)

Most recently traditional landscape, seen in a more widespread contemporary riff, has had a greater impact as public consciousness continues to be raised over commanding issues of health, wealth, and the fervent need to recognize the alarming worldwide demise of earth stewardship. I didn’t even know Michael Herbold, a teacher and civic- minded environmental activist, was a painter until this past summer’s echo Art Fair extravaganza, when I saw in the Nina Freudenheim Gallery’s stall a sepia watercolor of a struck tree trunk jutting out of the forest floor like a survivor of “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” The same image resurfaced recently in my mailbox, now fully wrought in reproduction as an oil painting on an invitation to the opening of Herbold’s new show at the same gallery.

The apparent ease with which Herbold’s work is painted belies his painstaking preparation, evident in the squadrons of brushes neatly lined up in his studio (down to .03-inch hairs) and in his traditional technique of using schematic cartoons to build up to the life-size scale of his best paintings, which might be characterized as “Eden in Strife.” Herbold is adept at shaping the viewer’s experience. His buoyant expressions of heightened reality, the bright, alluring physical texture of his subjects, the fine depiction of bark and forest floor vegetation especially in the untidiness of nature, the soaring oceans of clouds reminiscent of Thomas Cole and the luminous painters of the Hudson River School, refuse to be reduced to decorative ornamentation or academic rendering. His images fire the imagination, constructing sylvan edifices that have a celestial majesty worthy of psychoanalysis, and suggesting the priapic wrought in naked, wrenching, prelapsarian duets of land and sky.

Herbold’s show runs through October 9.

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