Reflections on painting the cityscape- Brian Keeler
Scranton may not seem to be the first choice for the subject of artistic expressions. Yet this city has a rich history and with patience and study, the visual possibilities are apparent. We sometimes expect the motif to be presented to us on a silver platter, already painted more or less. More often than not, it takes active looking and consideration to get a compelling subject. I have been painting the city for decades and part of the appeal is "the unpicturesque" vignettes and off-beat angles. The aesthitic of the Ashcan School of painters of the turn of the 19th century into the 20th can be understood here. Robert Henri, George Luis and Everett Shinn would all probably find fodder for their canvases here. Like their brushy and painterly depictions of the humble, the everyday and the quotidian, one can find views to capture here.
My first canvas depicting Scranton was done in 1983 and this slice-of-life type of painting, is a depiction of a street corner. This portrayal was purchased soon after- by a local. It remains in the collector's new home in Florida today, one of his prized pieces.
The painting depicts a corner store, a bar and a bakery that are now all gone. The entire corner was razed over a decade ago- part of some type of urban renewal. I found the architecture, the signage, and an old Chevy Malibu all compelling. The late afternoon February light, the lone figure of an older man entering a dark bar- all were brimming with fecundity for me. The urban blight aspect to the scene was part of the appeal too. Still, the corner store depicted here, Markowitz's, I was told, was a stopover for morning coffee, perhaps a lottery ticket and newspapers for many. While showing this painting at a street fair in front of the Lackawanna Court House in 1984 the owners and many of the patrons came over to view this oil.
I have a new show opening in Scranton in July (on the 7th) at the Artworks Gallery on Penn Ave, titled "Urban Topographies- Rivers of Light." A word about the title first. Topography is generally used to descirbe the form of land- how it rolls or it's elevation. Using the term here, out of context somewhat, is to suggest that the forms of towns and cities can be regarded as concave and convex geometries similar to and maybe analogous to the land.
This show will be my first in Scranton since the closing of the Laura Craig Gallery, which was located just around the corner on Linden Street. I had a long and successful run of almost 30 years at Laura's gallery. This gallery was on the ground floor of an historic building, the G.A.R building. There are many equally notable structures in Scranton- including the churches and beautiful Victorian houses. Like elsewhere around the country, many have fallen to developers and for other reasons. Not long ago, entire blocks of historic buildings met the wrecking ball on Lackawanna Avenue as the new Steamtown Mall was constructed.
Above- Painting plein air with students in Scranton.
There was a show of the Lackawanna River (which flows through Scranton) organized many years ago by the AFA Gallery members which I participated in. The Lackawanna has its headwaters up near Simposon, PA and empties into the Susquehanna north of Pittston. The history of the extractivism of coal mining is intergral to this river and the region. We can still notice the effects of this industry on the east bank of the Susquehanna below the mouth of the Lackawanna- as it is always stained orange. This presumable from the acid runoff that continues from the mines. In that show I had a large canvas of the Lacakawanna at Olyphant, PA that included a collapsing Oldsmobile garage with a wonderful Greek Orthodox, gold-domed church behind. This scene is now totally changed. The view, however has been the subject of several paintings.
Above- "Lackawanna Reflections" a 36" x 40" oil on linen depicst the river north of Scranton in Olyphant, PA. The Oldsmobile Garage was razed years ago.
Above- The same view of the Lackawanna River at Olyphant, PA but depicted in winter and after the demolition of the garage.
Above- A plein air painting- done from a bridge over the Lackawanna River at Olyphant, PA- which is about 10 miles upstream from Scranton. This 26" x 30 " oil titled. "Lackawanna, June Afternoon."
All of these changes in the scenes of Scranton (and nearby towns) that I've documented and painted over the years can be viewed as part of the general impermance of all things. Still, we can understand the lament when historic and notable structures fall to short-sighted commercial interests or neglect.
My interest in painting Scranton, as with most subjects, is part of the formal concerns with the elements of painting. The subject does have its own content, importance and relevance. Still there are the structural and compositional aspects of picture making that are applied regardless of the subject.
The intervals of space- are one such interest. This large oil (shown below), a diptych or( two-paneled) painting is titled "Scranton Intervals" is representative of this quest. The title is referring to my interest in the positioning and relation of objects and people. This pertains to the design, in terms of graphic or flat design but also to the spatiall relations as object go back into space as with the road here. This dimunition of objects is commonly called linear perspective. This is formal shop talk- but these are some of the engaging aspects to me.
Above- "Scranton Intervals" a large diptych 36" x 62"- or two-paneld painting. In this painting, as with others in the upcoming show, the interest is in comparing the commercial and the sacred edifices. In the background the blue domed church on North Main St- is St. Michael's Ukranian Church.
This new exhibit at Artworks will include some small plein air studies and several larger studio works of Scranton and nearby towns. One of Fleetiville, PA also shows a partly vanished scene. This nocturne depicts the main intersection with a long since gone general store with a lone phone booth- itself a relic of bygone technology,.
In regards to the above painting- the following is a commentary written a few years ago.
This large oil combines some of the aspects of painting that have been of interest to me over the years. Everyday life, street corners, light and this one also incorporates my penchant for pairing up what seem like opposites- commercial interest and the sacred (or religious) in towns and cities of America. The blue onion domes of this church in Scranton combined with the gas station has an appeal to me for its contrasts.
The painting is on two canvases, and occasionally the question comes up by patrons and visitors to my shows, why this is done. For me it is partly related to how I sketch, which I call the forgiving method of doing thumbnail drawings. By this I mean that I extend the borders, (sometimes) to improve the overall distribution of shapes. So in this oil, that idea is carried out complete with the notes added to the canvas. In other words, these actual notations and design struggles were added to incorporate some of the process of picture making.
The diptych and triptych formats originate with medieval and renaissance altarpieces, so that is the tradition. But I also simply like the lines. The panels, especially when they are of equal size act as additional composing devices. By this I mean organizing within each canvas as well as the whole is somehow facilitated and I become cognizant of more of the relationships. In this painting, because of its unequal sizes, the endeavor is a little more challenging. Each panel is organized well within itself, but the running man is a little closer to the center than I prefer, but enough to the left and above to create some tension.
Finding the Light- and portraying the Golden Hour-
As with this wide-format acrylic painting of Scranton shown below, the idea is in finding the beauty in a mundane view of back streets. This view of Scranton shows the railroad tracks and buildings just east of Mulberry Street in the late afternoon light of November.
One of the subjects in Scranton- that seems to represent this idea of finding the muse in the commonplace is the view on Lackawanna Ave just north of the Steamtown Mall. This is the view from a bridge that shows the U-haul parking lot along with a wonderful green-domed church. The two shown together represented the juxtaposition of the commercial with the sacred or religious. The them also recalls Titian's painting titled "Sacred and the Profane" which includes a beautiful nude and a fully clothed woman. In one of the paintings of this subject it is the rhythms of the subjects and the zigzagging qualities that appealed to me. Thus finding the muse in the banal or commonplace. Scranton can offer this in spades.
Above- "Scranton U-Haul" a 36" x 40" oil on linen.
Above- The same view of the parking lot as the previous painting. This version done in triptych format, i.e, a three-paneled horizontal composition.
Above- Keeler painting a plein air of Scranton en plein air on Mulberry Street in Scranton.
Above- A preliminary drawing for a mural project. It depicts the intersection of Wyoming and Penn Avenues in Scranton. "Bike Boys" charcoal and white pastel on tinted paper 26" x 26" collection of the University of Scranton- Library.