As the light turns: Scott Prior’s Northampton exhibit ‘Nocturnes’ evokes a music of moods

  • “First Night Northampton,” oil on panel.

  • “Moonrise on the Beach,” oil on panel. Prior’s new exhibit is focused on evening and nighttime scenes. William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Diner at Sunrise” was inspired by the Whately Diner, though many changes have been made to the actual setting there.

  • “Lone House,” oil on panel — a beautiful or lonely scene, or perhaps a bit of both. Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • “Bonfire on the Harbor,” oil on panel. Seaside images have been a regular part of Prior’s work over the years. Images courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

  • Image courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2021 2:25:04 PM

Valley artist Scott Prior, who’s long been labeled a “realist” painter because of the photo-like quality of much of his work, has drawn particular praise over the years for the way he depicts light.

As he notes on his website, light became something essential to his work after seeing an exhibit of Edward Hopper paintings in which light was also a key component: “I am still fascinated by the varied and countless effects of light on the tangible world of my experience. In the same year as my discovery of light I changed from being an ironic observer into an emotional participant.”

At William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, a new exhibit of some of Prior’s latest work offers a different take on light. “Nocturnes” features a range of oil paintings of evening, nighttime and early morning scenes in which light comes from a spectral moon, streetlamps or a hint of yellow in the sky, while the prevailing sentiment is that of nighttime’s quiet and softness.

There’s “Moonrise of the Beach,” for instance, in which the light of the distant moon is reflected on a dancing line on the ocean, extending from an empty shore to the distant horizon. “Diner at Sunrise” features a retro-looking eatery faintly lit by a few internal and external lights, while around it lingering darkness, dark woods and drifts of snow in a parking lot convey a sense of deep silence.

Alternately moody, serene, and at times a bit mysterious, the collection comprises what gallery owner William Baczek calls “an intimate show.” In addition, the paintings themselves are all quite small or modest, the largest topping out at 20 by 16 inches.

The exhibit is also somewhat unusual, Baczek notes, in that it’s built around a specific theme. He says Prior, who’s exhibited with him for years, typically produces a broad range of paintings designed to highlight the beauty of everyday settings, from landscapes to still lifes to portraits of family members and friends.

But in this case, he says, Prior “suggested the theme and the title.”

Though one might wonder if the emphasis on nighttime scenes reflects the past year of the pandemic, Baczek says Prior has remained a busy painter since COVID-19 arrived, unlike some artists he knows who found themselves unable to paint, at least for a while, because of emotional stress from the situation.

Even though Prior, like other artists, lost opportunities to exhibit his art, Baczek noted, “He’s kept working.”

The varied landscapes of the Valley, in particular its mix of small- and medium-size towns and more rural but still-settled environs, remain a big part of Prior’s work. “First Night Northampton” depicts a quiet street of modest houses in the foreground, lit partly by a streetlamp, while the background view extends to the tops of other buildings, a clock tower and low, wooded hills, and above it all exploding fireworks, bright against a sky of dark, shifting clouds.

“Fireflies in the Meadow,” meanwhile, shows a path snaking through grass to two copses of trees in the background, while hazy pinpricks of light hover, with almost a 3-D effect, in the center of the painting above a wedge of flowers. “Lone House” is dominated by a grassy meadow and a mostly dark sky, while a thin, rolling horizon is marked by trees and a solitary white farmhouse.

The latter is either a beautiful or lonely image, depending on how you approach it — perhaps it’s a bit of both — and as such it might be a good example of Prior’s philosophy, which he discusses in a videotaped interview on his website. As he says at one point, “I’m basically an optimist with a pessimistic bent.”

He also says that painting has been his avenue for addressing the complexity of life, in particular by trying to capture what the natural world means to him: “The beauty of the world is still there, regardless of what we’re trying to do to it.”

Baczek notes that Prior’s work has always appealed to him as well for the varied way he reuses ordinary objects from previous still life paintings — and by the sense of humor he can bring to those works. The miniature (7 x 5½ inches) “Alien on the Kitchen Counter” features part of a spotted glass that’s appeared in earlier paintings, though the focus of the image is a tiny extraterrestrial figurine standing next to the glass, arms akimbo.

“Scott has always been good at finding new ways to deliver familiar ideas and themes,” Baczek said.

And Prior’s new exhibit, though dominated by landscapes, includes a number of paintings where people are out and about in the evening.

“Bonfire on the Harbor,” one of the larger works, showcases a small, nighttime beach party, a smattering of boats in the water behind the people. “July 4th” gives us a bare-chested boy in shorts, illuminated by a small stream of fireworks shooting off in a grassy backyard.

Prior says he doesn’t do strictly pastoral landscapes; the “intrusions” of mankind, whether a distant farmhouse or a worn path through a meadow, are also part of those scenes. But whether at night or in the sun-bathed tableaus he’s specialized in, his paintings, as one critic has noted, “discover magic, memory, and human feeling imprinted in landscape.”

“Nocturnes” will be on display at William Baczek Fine Arts through May 1. A retrospective show of Scott Prior’s work is also on exhibit through May 29 at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit, on Cape Cod.

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




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