An exhibition review titled Forces of Nature in the Nashville Scene
April 18, 1996

By Bonnie Arant Ertelt

Forces of Nature

Paul Cezanne once wrote to his son about the intensity of working from nature. "I am becoming more clear-sighted in front of nature," he said, "but...the realization of my sensations is always very difficult... Here on the edge of the river, the motifs are very plentiful, the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending a little more to the right or left."

Charles Brindley seems to understand what Cezanne meant by the possibility of being occupied for months or even years with drawing or painting from nature, always striving to realize those "sensations." On my living-room wall is a drawing of Brindley's that belonged to my husband before our marriage made it part of our joint collection. Dated 1981, it pictures a wind-sculpted, totally denuded tree in the company of three rocks on a grassy copse. Looking at the current exhibit of Brindley's drawings and paintings on view at the Nashville Arts Gallery through May 11, one can see that he has continued working from the same place as Cezanne, bending to the right and left from time to time.

This may sound boring, but it's not–at least not for the artist, who finds that the sense of mystery present in nature propels him toward landscape as subject matter. Brindley does a good job of conveying the mystery too, particularly in three works that depict rock formations. On the far wall opposite the gallery's entryway, on either side of the windows that look out on Church Street, these three large paintings form a triumvirate picturing various stone outcroppings. Their names­Blackrock, Sapphire Ridge, Temple Rock–reflect a religiosity and awe magnified by a feeling that they are truly as old as time. Brindley conveys in these depictions a mystery that mere mortals can only wonder at. Like a naturally made Stonehenge or the landscape in the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock, these boulders are almost scary in their immensity and vibrancy. One could even see them as portraits, because they seem ominously alive.

One reason for this is Brindley's skill at underpainting with pure or complimentary colors. Looking into the shadows of these rocks, the viewer can make out bits of blues, greens and reds, although from farther away the shadows merely appear to be a darker brown that the boulders. Underpainting is used to equally good effect in Brindley's skies, with red sometimes glowing beneath a light-blue cloudiness. Looking more closely at the rocks also reveals a lively surface full of many fissures and cracks. This attention to detail extends to the shadows, and it's what makes these rocks seem so real. The colors and details blend harmoniously so that one element doesn't seem more important that another. They form a balanced whole that translates into a nearly photo-real finish.

Several of the other paintings do not work for me as well as these three do. While every painting in the exhibit works from afar–Brindley seems to have mastered the pointillist effect of having the eye blend the colors on the canvas–they do not always work up close, and I want them to work for me in both places, as the boulder triptych does. Several of the paintings seem to be drawn with paint–rather than painted–and then filled in with dabs of color that blend together the farther you stand from them. Although the paintings feature pronounced foregrounds, middlegrounds and backgrounds, the compositions in these works doesnąt blend together as cohesively as it does in the boulder paintings.

The former botanical illustrator in me likes Brindley's drawings best. The artist has said that drawing is at the core of his work–as it is for all artists; in nature or landscape art, however, it serves a different purpose. For most artists, drawing is the most creative phase, since it involves the working out of problems of depiction and composition, but for an artist such as Brindley, it also serves as a visual record of the natural world and of the artist's role as observer. "There is information, insight and emotion," he says, "that I gather directly from a subject that does not exist for me in a photograph"–which is very succinct way of saying that there's more to Brindley's work than just the act of recording an image on paper: We see the object observed and the observer reflected in that object. This is certainly true in botanical art and no less true in landscape art, though the melding of art and observation sometimes seems to obscure the artist in the finished piece.

This doesn't happen is studies, which is why looking at studies is almost like reading an artist's secret diary. I took great pleasure in reading the notes in the upper-left-hand corner of Brindley's study of a severed oak, and I enjoyed viewing another drawing that featured smaller drawings in a corner away from the main subject. These little gems help the viewer understand a little about why there is such power in nature. They are the visual working out of those philosophical mysteries that seem so awe-inspiring in the paintings.

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