Anyone who’s followed the work of artist Gayle Bard over the last two decades will undoubtedly identify her as a landscape painter — albeit a landscape painter with a difference.
Her cloudscapes, riverine scenes and rolling mountain vistas seem somehow more than just themselves, though what their extra “something” is can be difficult to pinpoint.
That torquing approach down a narrow mountain valley … doesn’t it resemble the way you get through a tricky, pressured passage in life?
That estuarial view with an enormous cloud-balancing sky above it … is it echoing moments when moods that feel flat or serpentine suddenly have vast and towering dimensions?
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Or is that reading too much into these oils on canvas? Is a valley just a valley, a marsh just a marsh, a sky just a sky?
With “Gayle Bard: A Singular Vision,” billed by Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) as its “first major solo retrospective” (the museum, which opened in June, has hosted other, smaller solo shows), helps answer those questions. So does a splendidly produced catalog with the same title (Bainbridge Island Museum of Art/Marquand Books, 88 pp., $42, available only from BIMA by calling 206-451-4009).
Spanning almost 40 years, the exhibit puts Bard’s recent landscapes in helpful context. While her meticulous painterly flair is evident from the start, her early choice of subject matter is far removed from the later landscapes. Examples include a lone blue balloon floating down a corridor framed by a few too many doorways (“It’s a Boy”) or the corners of an empty room where the alignments of walls and shadows seem to contradict each other (“Pink Walls With Green Line”).
Bard, who lives on Bainbridge, doesn’t just stick to oil painting. The BIMA show includes some remarkable installations, notably two built in 1984, “New Light” and “One of Our Other Wars.” They’re finely crafted boxes offering fish-eye-lens views into carefully crafted house interiors in miniature. In “Other Wars,” the lens slides along a groove, giving the cozy interiors a shifting, 3D-hologram quality.
Work from the 1990s continues to play with trompe l’oeil effects, whether Bard is turning to the concrete and shadows of the bunkers at Fort Worden State Park for inspiration (“Prayer for Kurdistan,” “Gift of Our Fathers”) or the architecture of Mexico. (“Montañas de Guanajuato #1” depicts a heavy window grille set in a stone wall. Past the grille, visible through a window on the far side of a dark interior, is a far-off mountain vista.)
The kinship in these works is with Magritte as much as Constable, especially in the way they play with depth perception. What’s remarkable is that, since her injury in a car accident in 1974, Bard has had vision in only one eye.
The strict geometries of her Fort Worden paintings, her early interiors and her travels abroad (in depictions of English formal gardens as well as Mexican towns) somehow cast a light on what’s going on in the landscapes. And the dimensions of the landscapes themselves, ranging from exaggerated “CinemaScope” vistas (“Bonnington Road,” “Top of Montgomery Ridge”) to sky-dominated squarer canvases (“Bainbridge Island Cloud,” “Skagit Flats”), seem to point toward some metaphorical or metaphysical meaning couched in them.
Most viewers will probably latch on to the landscape work because of its immediate surface appeal. Others may be drawn to Bard’s more severe, eye-bending paintings, including some that are reproduced in the catalog (“Lies,” “Afterlife of Strategy”) but aren’t in the show.
Either way, it’s illuminating to have an exhibit tracing the full trajectory of this fine artist’s career.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org