“Andrew Watel: Things,” “Paintings by Claire McConaughy,” “Small Stories by Tilly Woodward,” Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art

“Body and Soul,” Andrew Watel, 2022, Pastel on paper, 60” x45”

In their concurrent exhibits at the Sherry Leedy Gallery, three artists with very different work manage to touch a similar chord — that of memory and its felt experiences.

Andrew Watel’s show “Things” is an astonishing testimonial to the artist’s mastery of his preferred medium, pastel. He pushes the peculiar characteristics of this chalky material to the max, and in the end his works elicit mental states verging on the mystical.

Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art interior shot. Featuring pastel drawings by: Andrew Watel. Ceramic Sculpture by: John Balistreri
(Photo by Elise Gagliardi)

Now resident in Kansas City, this veteran artist, who received his M.F.A. from Yale in 1983 and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design from 2004-2017, works in a massive scale, for pastel, that reaches 60 x 45 inches at times. The duskiness of his depictions draws the viewer through what is what virtually a portal, wherein anonymous, mundane objects such as a spring, an inner tube, or a metal fan — chosen for “their shape, color, and geometry,” he says — stare at us mutely.

Each of his subjects is placed in the center of the page, lending it an iconic force. Then he draws and erases it until in the end we are left with a dematerialized reminder of something we know but can barely recognize, much like memories that fade with time.

“Sky in the Water,” Claire McConaughy, 2021, Oil on canvas, 60” x 50”

Claire McConaughy’s brushy oil paintings of landscapes and birds are like flashbacks to places and natural phenomena that feel like psychic imprints left over from a vibrant spring day. They are inspired from McConaughy’s walks through the woods of her Pennsylvania homestead.

McConaughy’s studio is in Brooklyn, where she sorts through the various sketches and photos she has taken to arrive at her results.

With their heightened intensity of color and flamboyant brushstrokes, her nature scenes, to this viewer, vividly acknowledge the pure joy that the natural world provides, perhaps more so than ever in the last two trying years. But they are more than that.

“It is a landscape,” the artist writes of her paintings, “but I hope there is metaphor, sense feeling, and other relationships in the work.” In the end, McConaughy’s art functions more as a meditation than as a depiction of a particular place.

“Feather Nest,” Tilly Woodward. Oil on paper on panel, 18” x15″

As Barbara O’Brien writes in her insightful synopsis of the artist’s artworks: “In describing the subject of a painting by McConaughy it seems not quite right to use a noun— sky or lake or shore or horizon — as the subject of the painting, although we might upon thoughtful looking see any and all of those things. What is most clearly seen and experienced are the observations of the painter; the memory of this experience . . .”

Memory and the history of personal objects are the focus of Tilly Woodward’s 22 petite paintings in “Small Stories.” Woodward, who received a B.F.A. from the Kansas City Art Institute and an M.F.A. from the University of Kansas, is currently curator of academic and community outreach at Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery in Iowa.

“There is so much that is uncertain in the world,” she writes, “I find it a comfort to take time to see one thing clearly, or a part of one thing clearly, each day . . . The things I paint are symbolic of my life, and laden with meaning.” This explains why the insects, nests, and other memorabilia Woodward painstakingly reproduces in gorgeous jewel-like colors appear freeze-framed, as if to last for eternity.

Trompe l’oeil paintings have a significant profile in American art, with artists such as William Harnett and John Peto in the 19th century, to Chuck Close and Jasper Johns in the contemporary artworld, delving into this genre’s intricacies for various conceptual and decorative reasons. Woodward’s paintings, mostly oil on paper on panel, have a beauty and mystery all their own. Her depictions of nests are delicate and exquisite, and the one anatomical portrait she does of a hand, “Astrid: Words are Hard,” is compelling. Her art makes us ache for the real world.

One of the many values of art is its ability to both challenge and safeguard memories, and the above three artists show us exactly how to make that happen.

Andrew Watel: Things,” “Paintings by Claire McConaughy,” “Small Stories by Tilly Woodward” continue through Aug. 20 at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday. For more information, 816.221.2626 or www.sherryleedy.com.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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