A fine pairing: William Baczek gallery in Northampton unites ‘big guns’ in new exhibit

Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014

One part of the gallery is awash in color, color that veers from crystalline beauty to the almost lurid. In the gallery’s other section, it’s an entirely different world: somber grays, shades of black and off-white combine to offer a sense of mystery and shadow.

In his downtown Northampton gallery, William Baczek has just opened his first combined exhibit of the artists he calls “two of my biggest guns” — Eric Wert and Mallory Lake. The pairing of the two, both of whom have exhibited at Baczek Fine Arts Gallery separately, offers a dramatic contrast in style, mood and approach.

Wert, an Oregon painter who earned a master’s degree in art from Northwestern University in Chicago, has earned plaudits for his amazingly detailed but slightly off-kilter still lifes. A one-time scientific illustrator, he combines technical mastery with an eye for color but also a sense of dark humor, taking still lifes beyond “pretty pictures,” as Baczek puts it, into unpredictable tableaus that walk a narrow line between the beautiful and the macabre.

Lake, meanwhile, who lives in Marlboro, Vt., creates richly textured pastels that bring mood and intensity to a medium usually associated with soft landscapes and still lifes. Though she’s noted for landscapes herself, particularly of the Tuscany region of Italy, Lake’s work in the Northampton exhibit is a big departure from that: dark, atmospheric portraits of old train yards and stations that were inspired by stills from noir films.

“She started doing this a year or two ago,” Baczek said in an interview last week at his gallery. “She’s had a lot of success with her landscapes, so it can be hard to go into something new, not knowing how it’s going to be received. But I think this [exhibit] shows just how brilliant she is with pastels.”

Eric Wert, he adds, though still only in his mid-30s, has established himself as a leading still-life artist. “We’ve already sold six of his paintings,” he said, gesturing at the 11 works hanging in the gallery.

Eric Wert

There are a variety of elements churning in the mix in Wert’s oil paintings. The light and texture recall something of the still lifes of the Dutch painters of the 17th century, and the detail can seem almost overwhelming, like a 3-D effect. Pointing to the minute folds of a cabbage that’s depicted in Wert’s largest work, “Locavore,” Baczek says, “That’s not something you can do in a day or two.”

In fact, “Locavore,” which measures 40 by inches by 50 inches, took Wert a year to complete, Baczek says. Wert, who early in his career was a scientific illustrator for The Field Museum in Chicago, uses multiple layers of paint, as well as exacting detail, in building his work, though most of his paintings are of a more modest size.

Two other trademarks include using back lighting of his tableaus of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other objects, as well as setting the materials before backdrops of folded and embroidered tapestries, often of silk. The contrast between those backdrops and the materials in the foreground can be arresting or even a little garish, but it’s never boring.

At his best Wert has a way of combining composition, color, and subject matter in a way that engages the viewer on a visceral level. “Locavore,” as one example, offers an array of vegetables — beets, radishes, carrots, garlic, cabbage, mushrooms, brussels sprouts — sure to warm the hearts of foodies. But the colors are just a tad too bright, the lighting a touch otherworldly, in turn suggesting something’s a little off.

In fact, Baczek says, Wert once described his style as “David Lynch meets Martha Stewart,” and the phrase makes sense.

Take “Mola Salsa,” in which a molcajete, a rough stone basin, holds peppers, avocado, onion and lemon; salt shakers and a shot glass of tequila on the same tabletop seem to suggest preparations for a Mexican-style meal. Meantime, a large knife is wedged like a murder weapon in a tomato that leaks red juice onto the table.

In Ancient Rome, “mola salsa” meant “salted flour,” which was traditionally sprinkled between the horns of animals before they were slaughtered as a gift to the gods.

“Eric wanted to challenge himself,” Baczek said. “He wanted to do something more than make pretty pictures. ... He’s taken his technical mastery and added this sort of over-the-top detail and a bit of the macabre. It’s a style he’s made his own.”

Mallory Lake

Lake’s new collection is a study of abstraction and detail, or at least the impression of detail, which isn’t normally associated with pastels, given their softness. But Baczek notes that Lake uses extensive layering — “Her pastels are not just brushed on” — to give her work a richness and density that offers more definition than many pastel paintings.

At the same time, Lake often uses handmade pastels from France — some she purchased from the same Parisian art store that once sold materials to Degas, Baczek says — that lend her paintings a “buttery” look, as the gallery owner puts it.

Her show is also steeped in atmosphere. Dark locomotives, billowing clouds of steam, sit in dimly lit train yards and stations that are almost completely absent of people. In these nighttime scenes, the headlights of the engines are the only point of significant light — bright beacons in the gloom and shadow that Lake paints with subtle shifts of tone, mostly in gray and black.

One painting in particular highlights that look — appropriately enough, it’s titled “Gris et Noir” (French for “Gray and Black”).

She also depicts the interiors of waiting rooms and the halls of famous train stations, including Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station in New York City, in which a massive chandelier creates a shimmering but indistinct reflection on the polished floor.

But those interiors, though gently lit, are empty, and shadows seem to lurk just beyond the edge of the light, creating a sense of mystery, even of tension, that echoes the noir films that inspired her work.

“I look at these paintings and I hear sounds,” Baczek said. Referring to the painting of Vanderbilt Hall, he added, “I hear echoing footsteps.”

Among a host of beautiful images, “Night Train to Le Harve” stands out for the way Lake has combined elements of exterior and interior imagery. Beneath a column of steam, a locomotive pulls away from a station platform; two coaches are partly visible behind the engine. Muted light can be seen in the last car, but darkness closes in everywhere else, creating an edgy tone to the painting.

Indeed, “Night Train to Le Harve” sounds like the title of a novel by Alan Furst, author of a series of historical spy novels set in Europe just before or during World War II. And if Furst were to write a book with that name, he’d do well to see if he could use a reprint of Lake’s painting for the cover.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

New work by Eric Wert and Mallory Lake will be on view though Dec. 14 at William Baczek Fine Arts, 36 Main St. in Northampton Gallery hours are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.


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