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Listening to Landscapes

Art Review: Bunny Harvey at Korongo Gallery


Published September 21, 2011 at 8:23 a.m.

“Frank Gave Me a Blue Mountain”
  • “Frank Gave Me a Blue Mountain”

Musical compositions often evoke visual images, so why shouldn’t paintings be able to depict sounds? And scents and textures?

Wassily Kandinsky, generally considered the first great abstract painter, did seek to make his work appealing to the ears as well as to the eyes. In fact, there’s a theory that Kandinsky (1866-1944) had a neurological condition known as synaesthesia, a sort of overlapping of the senses in which colors are perceived as sounds and vice versa.

Bunny Harvey may be another synaesthete. In a show at the Korongo Gallery in Randolph entitled “Listening/Vermont,” this proficient and inspired artist presents a suite of paintings that, she says, conjure not just the chatter of birds and the buzz of insects, but also the bouquet of new-mown hay and the squish of meadow mud between her toes. Harvey notes on her website that her work has come to be focused on “unseen elements of landscape.”

The titles she’s given to some of the 22 works in this strong show — “Whispering Apple,” “Garden: Textured Harmonies,” “Pond With Blue Zings” — make her intentions explicit. Even the segment of her audience that doesn’t readily “hear” paintings or respond to them in tactile or olfactory ways will find it possible to interpret the wind-blown wisps zipping across a canvas as Harvey’s expression of the hum, as well as the flight path, of a dragonfly. We also twig the conceit that a splotch of green is meant to convey the smell and feel of grass, not just its appearance.

Whether Harvey succeeds in giving her landscapes more than a visual dimension will be up to individual gallery-goers to determine. But it ultimately doesn’t matter if the work fails to speak, literally, to those who encounter it. Paint is still paint, and in that medium, Harvey’s success is not in doubt.

Her credentials are certainly in order. Born in New York in 1946, Harvey earned an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and in 1974 was awarded the much-coveted Rome Prize in painting, which enabled her to study and work for two years at the American Academy in Rome. She was represented from 1989 to 2010 by the venerable but financially challenged Berry-Hill Galleries on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And Harvey, who lives part-time in Randolph, has taught art at Wellesley College for the past 35 years.

Her studies in the esoteric field of particle physics may offer further insight into Harvey’s art. The world appears to enter her consciousness at the subatomic level, compelling this painter of readily recognizable Vermont scenes to try to capture the essences of trees, rivers and skies. That may help explain why Harvey’s unpeopled paintings can seem so mysterious, so probing.

Why, for example, do some works include floating or thrusting rectangular forms? They can dominate a painting, as in “Frank Gave Me a Blue Mountain” (pictured), in which the outline of a thick column serves to highlight the central section of an otherwise representational work. At other times, the forms are more discreet. In the exquisitely colored “Realizaton,” for example, thin shafts look like light beams rather than geometric apparitions.

In a grouping of 10 smaller pieces, Harvey heads in an abstract direction, most beautifully in “Moon With Barred Owl Song,” a melancholy medley of color and light. These oils on panel of identical size are painted on their sides as well as on the usual picture plane, much in the all-over manner of the elegant English abstractionist Howard Hodgkin, who also gives his painterly reveries titles suggestive of nature scenes.

In the Korongo show, Harvey abruptly shifts moods along with media. “Kelsey Mountain Light,” a charcoal-and-pastel composition on paper, summons up a glowering sky and skeletal trees. And “Affinity, the Maple,” made with sumi ink on gessoed paper, includes calligraphic slashes that enhance the Japonaiserie effect. Here, leaves encircle a white emptiness — or, in the eyes of those who view a glass as half full, perhaps Harvey’s image is an opening leading into light. Synaesthetes may hear, feel or smell other possibilities, as well.