Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

To Challenge and Delight: Karen Horne’s Roman Holiday

Rome. Florence. Venice. These cities have been producing fabulous art for centuries. And for just as long they have been places of pilgrimage for artists, professional and amateurs alike. There may be more paintings and photographs of these three cities than of any other three in the world. Which, of course, means there are probably more hackneyed images of this tourist triumvirate than of any other in the world.

In Roman Holiday, Karen Horne’s current exhibit of pastels and oils from a recent trip to the cities mentioned, you will find little of the hackneyed. Or the touristy for that matter. Horne eschews the normal tourist (and Sunday painter) sites and concentrates on a subject that has been of interest to her for some years – cafés. Actually, I imagine the subject, or better, subjects of interest to her have been light, composition and form, but cafés have been her vehicle for expressing these interests. The works in this exhibition — at Horne Fine Art through the end of June — are part of a larger body of café scenes that will be on exhibit at the Springville Museum of Art in the fall. And while there are certain things about these café scenes — a waiter’s outfit or the umber color of a restaurant’s walls — which identify them as uniquely Italian, the beauty of them is that the artistic elements in the works make the foreign locales of only secondary interest.

Horne went to Italy this past November with a large group organized by the Springville Museum of Art. This was not Horne’s first time to Italy. She spent a summer there in the eighties as part of her M.F.A. training (and returned again in the early 90’s). The works in Roman Holiday evoke Horne’s formal training, not just because they take us back to Italy, but more importantly because they reveal much about the influence of her education at Yale and then Indiana University and how it has matured into her own individual style. As many good artists mature, their particular vision becomes apparent regardless of the subject matter or locale. In these works, Horne isn’t so much confronted by Italy as Italy is confronted by her. Horne brings with her to Italy her unique pictorial conception, which is based on a love for drawing and a very modernist sensibility for form and structure as well as the emphasis on the push and pull of a flat surface that came to her via her professors’ time with Hans Hoffman.

These visual and artistic excursions, not the geographic, are foremost in Horne’s works. We often see “travel exhibitions” — groups of artists showing together after spending some time abroad; but that is not what you will find here. The work in Roman Holiday is a type of landscape or outdoor art that should appeal, not solely because of an emotional reaction to a place, but because of the aesthetic strengths of the works themselves. These strengths are principally composition and color, both of which are adeptly employed to create works that challenge the eye and delight the senses.

The first painting executed in this group is possibly the most atypical. |0| “Red Apron in Rome” is seen from a slight angle, and has many diagonals in the composition and very loose brushwork, giving the piece a plein air feel. The waiter’s black outfit and red apron are typically Italian. It is, in a sense, the touristiest of her pieces. Despite this, it is still a very nice painting (one of my favorites, in fact) with a wonderful interplay of paired colors – the red apron and a lime green window, light blue umbrellas and ochre yellow walls – dancing across the picture plane.

Looking at the other paintings, one can see that as Horne progressed in the series the works tended to take on a flatter shape — less diagonals and more squares. Even when a perspective is involved, things tend not to recede. The risks of this type of work, of course, is that they can become boring; what I think I like the best in Horne’s work is this challenge. Some of the pieces — a minority — do seem uninspired, but in a good number of the works Horne is successful and the works are more interesting for the dangers taken.

“Ristorante Tre Scalini,” viewable from the street through the gallery window, is a visual bath of oranges and ochres, highlighted with touches of purples and warm blues. |1| The interest in the painting becomes obvious quickly; it is in the overlapping tablecloths that form a series of triangles. These interact with a brightened doorway and windows — flat squares, and the long rectangles and triangles that make up the umbrellas of the café.

Horne’s café scenes are populated with figures – in Italy it would be almost impossible not to see people in a café – but they too are reduced to very basic forms and shapes. They can be individual but are never portraiture, never specific. The stance of a waiting waiter can be gesturely dead on but show almost no detail. In “When in Rome” the diners, lit by a strong afternoon light, are not treated much differently from the floors, umbrellas or tables. |2|

Most of the pieces in Roman Holiday are oil paintings but there are a few small and a couple of large pastel works. I prefer Horne’s pastels to her paintings. They show a quick and sure hand and twinkle with light in a way the paintings sometimes do not. One of my favorite pieces in the exhibit is “On The Piazza Novana,” a pastel drawing that is probably the best example of Horne’s combination of dynamic composition and wonderful use of color. |3| In this piece, orange and red dominate the entire painting except for a small portion in the upper right hand corner where the interior green glow of the ristorante silhouettes a trio of diners. This lopsided scene, where everything seems to be happening in the right hand corner, is kept in check by the large, intruding rectangle of the bottom of one of the table’s umbrellas. Secondary compositional effects, like the figure in the right hand corner of the foreground and the second umbrella, bring the eye back and forth, creating diagonal movement out of a series of very flat forms.

The geometric shapes in cafes may lend themselves easily to the modernist compositions of Horne’s café scenes, but when Horne strays from the café format we see that she takes the same aesthetic with her. For her few days in Venice, Horne took her eye off the mark. Or the cafes, rather. In her handful of Venice pictures we see the more traditional tourist scenes: gondoliers, cathedrals hovering above the water, views of the Canal Grande. She has examined these subjects in the same way, however. The gondolas are reduced to a swift slip of the brush, eliminating details such as the decorative “irons” of the stems. The reflections and shadows on the water are also seen in broad areas of shapes rather than ripply details. My favorite of this group is of Santa Maria della Salute at night. I enjoy the way she has reduced the grand cathedral to its bare pictorial elements, ignoring the swirls of baroque architecture. The picture is an examination of the interplay between positive and negative forms, much like “La Dolce Vita” a café scene from Rome.|4|

Horne did do one café piece in Venice. “Beacon at the Bauer shows a fairly non-descript scene (for Venice at least).|5| It is the patio of the hotel where the Springville group stayed. Horne has reduced the objects in the foreground to one large plane of neutral color so that it can act as a balance to the dark night sky and help frame the action in the middle – the white lights, lime green reflections and bright red flowers.

Seeing more and more of Horne’s cafe scenes makes her selection of subject matter seem, at least in hindsight, obvious if not predestined. The array of basic geometric shapes and colors play to Horne’s strength as an artist. Despite the title of the exhibit — Roman Holiday — don’t be afraid of finding an exhibit of tourist art this month at Horne Fine Art. In many respects these paintings and drawings could have been done anywhere there is a café, though if you have an affinity for the “bel paese” you will find plenty in these works to seduce. But, more importantly, if you are a lover of fine art and appreciate a strong modernist aesthetic you will find much in this exhibit to challenge and delight.

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