Show in Manhattan Through Nov. 12
By Carl Blumenthal
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
GOWANUS ‚ÄĒ It‚Äôs hard to measure progress. Ten years ago I wrote a series of articles for this newspaper about conditions on and around the Gowanus Canal. At the time, six months before 9/11, prominent residents and merchants, environmentalists and artists, agreed that things were looking up for the area. (The canal was still called ‚ÄúLavender Lake‚ÄĚ but at least it didn‚Äôt stink anymore, thanks to the reactivation of the flushing tunnel.)
Since then the canal has been studied quite a bit, and with the Superfund designation there will be a lot more study. But even with continuing problems, the blocks surrounded by Smith Street and Fourth Avenue, the Gowanus Expressway and Baltic Street, seem livelier than ever with new galleries, clubs and restaurants open on weekends and evenings and plenty of commercial traffic during the day.
Artist Elizabeth O‚ÄôReilly was one of the people I interviewed in 2001. She had been in her studio on the top floor of 543 Union St., next to the canal, since 1992. She‚Äôs still there, one of the stalwarts of the ‚ÄúGowanus school‚ÄĚ of painting, which also includes John Ross Michaels, Nicholas Evans-Cato, Joseph and Linda Mariano, Regina Perlin, Diana Horowitz and Andrew Landigan, among others.
Some 150 painters, sculptors, photographers and multi-media artists participated in the 15th Annual Gowanus Artists Studio Tour on Oct. 15 and 16 - 24 artists did in 1999 when I first covered the event - but, in spite of the vitality they contribute to the artistic scene, the Gowanus Canal is rarely a subject for them.
Elizabeth O‚ÄôReilly is one of the exceptions to this rule. Not only was her studio open to the public during the tour, but she also has a solo exhibit of her oils and watercolor collages featuring the Gowanus area at the George Billis Gallery, 521 West 26th St. (Basement 1) in Manhattan, through Nov. 12. This is her eighth solo show at the Billis, which has represented her since 2000.
So if you missed her work or want to see more, hop on the A/C train and get off at 23rd Street, a half dozen blocks from the gallery. (Also go to www.georgebillis.com or elizabethoreilly.com for a preview.)
Why is Elizabeth O‚ÄôReilly so prolific, or, in other words, why is there such a demand for her work, which has yielded countless exhibitions, sales to prominent collectors, awards, and teaching positions?
For an expatriate from County Cork, Ireland, land of literary giants, it is partly her dogged efforts to find her artistic legs on the streets of Gowanus, as she recounted to me during my visit to her studio on Oct. 4.
Her humility matches her 5‚Äô2‚ÄĚ size, and her wavy brown hair frames a face with sparkling eyes and a ready smile. Her small canvasses, no more than a foot or two on each side, also seem to fit her modest ambitions. As she said in 2001, ‚ÄúIt is the freshness of the paint that captures my feelings. If I don‚Äôt do [the painting] in one day, I lose the energy, the intensity.‚ÄĚ
Although she earned her master‚Äôs of fine arts from Brooklyn College in 1992, it wasn‚Äôt until one day in 1997 when she realized the alleyway behind her studio building was an equally valid subject as the trees and flowers she had been painting since she was a little girl.
Whether close-ups or panoramas of the Gowanus area ‚ÄĒ sometimes seen from such exotic locations as the F train platform at Smith and Ninth streets, the roof of the Home Depot garage, and her car (for nighttime painting, a friend rigged an easel which fits over her steering wheel) ‚ÄĒ her pieces are intimate, warm, even buoyant.
They are not ‚Äúphoto realist,‚ÄĚ but they are realistic enough for the viewer to easily identify with the painter‚Äôs point of view. On the other hand, the absence of people in the frame allows your eyes to wander, to imagine ... life in the past ... or in the future?
Her paintings may not be jigsaw puzzles or kaleidoscopes in the sense of using her brush strokes to fracture the plane before her, but the scenes she depicts seem to ‚Äúfall into place‚ÄĚ for the viewer whether you‚Äôve been to Gowanus or not. I think this is why, as much as anyone else, Elizabeth O‚ÄôReilly has put the Gowanus Canal on the map artistically.
Even though there are natural landscapes in the Billis show, Elizabeth admitted to me, ‚ÄúI find it harder to paint in the countryside because it lacks the color and structure of the manmade world. I‚Äôm not as attracted to traditional landscape. There‚Äôs not so much sky in my paintings. Even if it‚Äôs blue, I won‚Äôt make it so.‚ÄĚ
In the past few years, she‚Äôs turned to making water-colored paper collages of these scenes. This has not only enabled her to come in from the cold of painting outdoors, the change in technique has also advanced her aesthetic. She told me, ‚ÄúI‚Äôve always been interested in shape and color. More so now. I‚Äôm not a tonal painter. It‚Äôs the flattened shapes I‚Äôm after. That‚Äôs the abstraction of it.‚Äô And she added, ‚ÄúCollage enables me to retain the best qualities of watercolor, its transparency and light, because I can cut the paper at the edge where I want. Otherwise the color bleeds.‚ÄĚ
The collages also brighten those colors. Check out her nighttime images of the Gowanus Expressway and Bay to see what you‚Äôre missing by whizzing by in your car. A moonlight swim, anyone?!
The industrial landscape Elizabeth once only depicted with oil paint on board (or more rarely watercolor on paper) she now also ‚Äúbuilds up‚ÄĚ with pieces of colored paper. This is a form of construction in miniature. Perhaps it mirrors a canal whose future is under construction.
A critic might say Elizabeth O‚ÄôReilly romanticizes or ignores the gritty history of the Gowanus. For example, Thomas Wolfe, in You Can‚Äôt Go Home Again, wrote about the ‚Äúsymphonic stink,‚ÄĚ like ‚Äúdeceased, decaying cats‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúprehistoric eggs‚ÄĚ of the canal in the 1930s.
I would say she idealizes rather than idolizes the Gowanus area. While heavy and light industry continue along the canal even in a stagnant economy, Elizabeth‚Äôs work probably gives comfort to those who would like to see the Gowanus declared a National Historic Site (in the Urban Industrial category).
Ten years ago I wrote, ‚ÄúElizabeth is a connoisseur of the old and decayed, the natural and manmade. She especially likes the color of the Gowanus bridges, the bright greens and blues that used to be mirrored in the color of the canal.
‚ÄėNature Is Reclaiming
‚ÄúShe commented, ‚ÄėYou look in the water and see all these elements. And the industrial world has its own beauty. When something is past its prime, the colors are more subtle, weeds creep in, nature is reclaiming its own. Decay means you have to give the object a second or third look. There is poignancy and poetry that you don‚Äôt find in the fresh and new. That‚Äôs the feeling I try to portray.‚ÄĚ
She still agrees with this statement and adds, when you ‚Äúfeel like you‚Äôre painting history, you see changes other people don‚Äôt notice as much. I‚Äôve lived on the slope for 23 years. Familiarity is helpful for inspiration. It‚Äôs kind of a contradiction. You look at [the Gowanus] long enough, you see new things.‚ÄĚ
As for the politics of development along the canal, Elizabeth is cautious. Several times she emphasized how the issues are complicated. She explained, ‚ÄúMaybe it‚Äôs better [with the Superfund designation] that development slows down. I worry about bringing in people to live in big buildings [a la the Toll Brothers] before the canal is cleaned up. But maybe you have to bring in people first [to pressure for a cleanup]. For a painter, slow is more organic.‚ÄĚ
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