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Maybe you can fix it.

October 20, 2003

Both appeared in the library at the same time: Stuart C. Andrew’s paintings, and a beautiful new art book called “Hudson River School.” I couldn’t help but notice similarities.

I’m sure I will hear from knowledgeable art historians about how I have misjudged, but nevertheless …

I see the same affection for landscape, for natural drama, for colors rendered pastel by distance.

The Hudson River School painters of the Nineteenth Century come across as rather serious, although I can imagine a whimiscal smile now and then.

Many of the landscapes are so grand, mythological, and dripping with fantasy, that we must hope the artists suffered from whimsy rather than Purpose with a capital P.

(Although they did have a purpose as part of America’s early eco-tourism industry.)

Many of Stuart’s paintings are defined by whimsy. Somewhere in a well-executed landscape will be a peculiarity, which is then echoed in word-play in the title.

“Dali Llamas” is a landscape including llamas with Salvador Dali-esque features. “From one ex-stream to another” contains a dry creek bed and drilling rig. My favorite might be “Court of last resort,” in which a tennis net is strung — not unreasonably — in a wild landscape.

But then, I was delighted to see on page 127 of the Hudson River book a painting by M.J. Heade called “Gremlin in the Studio II.”

Heade was a renegade. In contrast to the glorious vistas of his contemporaries, Heade painted over 120 paintings of New England marshes.

In “Gremlin in the Studio II,” he makes a trompe l’oeil effect by placing a marsh landscape on a couple of sawhorses. At the fore-edge of the painting, the marsh is spilling out of the “canvas” and onto the floor. In the shadow under the canvas is an odd little creature perhaps responsible for this leak.

It looks to me, though, as if the artist had made a mistake and decided to have fun and make the best of it. There are many accidents of art and literature.

When I was a beautiful and promising young child, I liked to do pen and ink drawings. I worked very carefully at them. I remember quite well how I had finished a drawing intended as a gift, then reconsidered it.

I dipped the pen one last time for a few more lines, and as I lifted the pen from the page, a large drop of black ink fell and landed smack in the middle of the picture.

I don’t remember if I cried. I think I was stunned by anger and the disappointment of betrayal. I think my mother said something like, “Maybe you can fix it,” and through the dark cloud of my disgust at the absurdity of this remark, the light of a fix did indeed shine.

The perfectly round, perfectly black dot sat just above the horizon in the landscape. It was larger and blacker than anything else in the picture. I turned it into a sun, or a moon.

But it was dramatic and bold in a way I would never have otherwise accomplished. It worked. If I had managed to conceive of such a thing, I would have filled pages and pages of scrap paper with trial suns and moons and never would have achieved that perfect roundness.

I somehow accepted my good fortune, and in the back of my reluctant mind has remained the proven advice: Maybe you can fix it.


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