As we all digest the dire warnings of a “Dark Winter” ahead, Kansas City painter Jason Needham offers up a new body of pandemic-era work in the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center’s newly minted exhibition space called Habitat Contemporary Gallery, run by Robert Gann, formerly of Studios Inc. Needham’s “Wintertide” series, consisting of ten acrylic on canvas “snowscapes,” visualizes dynamic atmospheric forces circulating above, around and through us. The artist, best known for his plein air practice of painting lush woodland scenes, found himself “greened out” earlier this year after the lockdown forced him back into the studio. He makes the most of a limited palette of chilly blues and frosty whites while maintaining a playful reverence for the coldest season.
One of the first paintings to emerge was “Waking Hour,” a four-by-four-foot square canvas dominated by curvy cloud forms swirling around the foreground. Protruding cloud tendrils reach upward against a cascade of azure airflows undulating through the background. Gnarled, barren tree branches rendered in black and purple play peek-a-boo through openings in the middle ground — stark reminders of the terrestrial.
Needham pushes this imagery further in larger horizontal works like “Thin Air,” in which cloud forms blend into snowdrifts, mountain peaks or frothy whitecaps. The smooth expressive modeling has an animated quality echoing the artist’s earlier graphic works made in a distinctly Pop art style. Energetic streams of paint rise out of the clouds like an aurora borealis commissioned by the Kansas City Royals. A tangle of trees is present here too, visible through mysterious portals, in stolid contrast to the churning atmosphere. Like the silhouetted branches, only a patch of cottony cumulus clouds in the distance bring us back to nature as we usually know it.
If these pictorial spaces feel ambiguous in terms of place, it is evidence of the artist breaking free of plein air naturalism. One of the latest works in the series, “Vortex,” proves to be the most expressionistic and spontaneous. Macroscopic water droplets hover at the top edge of the canvas entirely out of scale with the flowing latticework of hydrological forms in various states of transformation: waves, vapors, ice. The artist ungrounds our perspective, playing with the uncertainty of visible and invisible, micro and macro, air and water, leaving us afloat to ponder these sublime forces that rule our lives.
Needham’s “Wintertide” series manages to bring the seasonal storm with minimal foreboding. The artist captures the excitement of being socked in by a blizzard, moments of hushed
contemplation after the storm and gently suggests our inevitable vulnerability to the forces of nature.
“Jason Needham: Wintertide” continues through Dec. 18 at Habitat Contemporary Gallery in the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave. Hours 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, firstname.lastname@example.org or habitatcontemporary.com.