Weatherspoon celebrates 70th anniversary with rare exhibits

by Keith Barber

Tom LaDuke, “The Nobodies,” 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas over panel, 45 x 60 in. (courtesy the artist and Angles Gallery, Los Angeles)

Ann Grimaldi is the perfect guide when viewing the work of artist Tom LaDuke. Studying the Los Angeles-based painter’s work “Gothic Plot,” Grimaldi, curator of education at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, notes, “He is layering different images — one image being the movie he’s watching on a TV screen and he’s also painting the TV screen.”

“So you’re getting the film on the TV screen, the reflection of his studio in the TV screen and you’re getting this top layer which comes from famous art history paintings,” Grimaldi adds.

Grimaldi explains that the image in the deep background of the oil on acrylic painting comes from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. LaDuke’s painting has a photographic quality, but upon closer inspection, one can see the brushstrokes and his meticulous style. The final touch is the third layer, which is a representation of 19th century German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Chalk Cliffs.” The thick texture of the paint seems to jump off the canvas.

“It’s highly realistic but it also has this dream quality,” Grimaldi notes. LaDuke’s exhibit, Run Generator, is one of several unique exhibits currently on display at the Weatherspoon. The museum is celebrating its 70th anniversary and museum director Nancy Doll is pulling out all the stops.

Grimaldi then moves onto the McDowell Gallery to talk about the impressive Rackstraw Downes exhibit.

“He’s like Tom LaDuke in that he’s always painting from observation,” she says.

Grimaldi explains that Downes works on site for several months on a single painting. A plein air painter, Downes depicts urban and rural landscapes in New York, New Jersey and West Texas. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the wide-angle feel of each painting.

“If you’re thinking you were going to do this from a photograph it would be much flatter,” Grimaldi says. “You start to notice almost like this fishbowl, wide-angle lens because that’s more indicative of how we see the world, so he’s literally scanning — moving his head back and forth to create the image. It’s actually more authentic in terms of our own observation but yet it looks a little skewed when we think of a painting of a landscape.”

A British-born artist, Downes acquired his MFA from Yale University. The Weatherspoon retrospective of Downes’ work covers more than three decades and will run through Aug. 21.

Downes is known for his unorthodox approach to landscape paintings that exalts the everyday and the mundane. He is also known for producing a series of paintings depicting slightly different angles of the same object. His sometimes gives his work lengthy titles, such as “Garbage Arriving in Barges at Fresh Kills is Hauled To the Top of Landfill in Athey Wagons,” and he often works in diptychs to give his landscapes a panoramic feel.

“He talks a lot about the sky and how typically in the history of landscape painting everyone focuses on the ground and the sky is just blue or something as an afterthought,” Grimaldi explains. “He tries to weight the sky — the heaviest elements in the painting being the lightest visually and the lightest elements in the scene being the heaviest.”

Downes urban scenes, such as his 110th and Broadway series capture the vibrancy of the urban landscape.

“He will pay people to walk back and forth in his scenes so he can capture them,” Grimaldi explains. “If you stand in one place and paint you would lose the motion of the person.”

The Rackstraw Downes exhibit runs through Aug. 21. The Weatherspoonhas another exhibit, Japanese Actor Prints, in its Ivy Gallery. Culled from the collection of the late UNCG professor Lenoir Wright, the woodblock prints depict Kabuki theatre stars of the 18 th and 19th century. Also, the Weatherspoon is displaying its collection of 19th century Indian and Persian miniatures. The exhibit runs through Aug. 7.

And finally, the Weatherspoon is currently displaying bronze sculptures by French master Henri Matisse. Donated by local philanthropists Etta and Claribel Cone, the figurative sculptures are placed side-by-side with Matisse’s two-dimensional figurative works. The Matisse exhibit runs through Oct. 2.