Usually I am suspicious of plein air painters. Setting up an easel to work in public feels like an activity of the attention-starved, like bringing a book to a party. Besides, the art it yields tends to be less of the gallery caliber and more in the realm of the craft fair hobbyist. Certainly it has had its masters, but it is an antiquated practice in an already antiquated medium, so it was surprising to see a solo exhibition of plein air works that were rigorously skillful and intelligent.
Andrew Lenaghan had never been to Santa Fe when he arrived last August to paint, but he’s a quick study. Completing 15 works in 30 days, he captures the look of Santa Fe without relying too heavily on tourist destinations or regional trademarks (read: no turquoise doors or pink sunsets).
Instead, Lenaghan focuses on the urban landscapes and the gritty accents that get left out of travel brochures. Among other things, he paints a boarded-up house, a well-used pickup truck and roadside ditches. These places aren’t exactly beautiful, but the paintings are. The care with which he captures his subjects holds my attention longer than the typical attempts to point at something deemed worth looking at.
The works, at a distance, have a photo-realist quality. The paintings’ surfaces are smooth and uniform. The planes of buildings and roads are solid and straight, obeying the laws of optics. Even Lenaghan’s perspectives remind me of snapshots taken with a wide-angle lens, depicting the world in sweeping horizontals that bend slightly at the edges.
While demonstrating their maker’s prowess, the paintings at first seem to cross the line between depiction and mimicry. Fortunately, a closer look, slower and nearer to the canvases, is rewarded with a plethora of detail rendered with more whimsy than expected.
This is especially true in Lenaghan’s handling of plants. The bushy growth of unmowed yards and the late-summer plumage of trees are swiped at, the paint applied with quick, steady arcs that resemble calligraphy. Lenaghan’s depiction of graffiti, as well as the grainy plywood on which it is displayed, is delineated in wisps of solid line work. It is clear the works were pored over, obviously painted from life. Everything in the frame is given equal attention and treated as important.
With so much detail, it would have been understandable to find areas where the marks were reduced to a scribble, a way to block in a colorful undercoat, but Lenaghan remains focused. Each tuft of grass possesses the same deliberate liveliness.
This has a hypnotic effect, enticing me to inspect even the most banal areas of space—the distant pines in “Cathedral Avenue,” the rope triangle tied above a parked car, the c-shaped rocks scattered along the incline at Camel Rock. It is enthralling to investigate Lenaghan’s minutiae, equal parts precise and immediate. I am reminded of John Singer Sargent, whose quick dashes of color transform from a smear of paint to a perfectly nuanced coat button at a distance of a few feet. In this way, Lenaghan shows no small amount of restraint, hinting at details and letting the mind of the viewer fill in the gaps.
With such a sure hand, Lenaghan’s works would likely succeed even as monochromes. However, his palette is the proverbial icing on the cake. He pays homage to the brown/blue color scheme of architecture and sky that is ubiquitous in this part of the country, but he also does a nifty job of capturing the environs in eerie hues that resemble headaches from too much sun. The neutral tones tend to shift toward the chromatic, shadows are purple or rimmed with green, and everything seems a bit too bright. It is as though the sky, impossibly blue, tints the entirety of the picture, deepening as it moves toward the canvas edge where the sun burns just out of view.
Despite the occasionally unsavory subject matter, Santa Fe never looked so good.
Andrew Lenaghan: Paintings
Through Dec. 31
William Siegal Gallery
540 S. Guadalupe St.