EXHIBIT:"Summer Serendipity," acrylic paintings by Phebe Mott. Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, Flynn Center, Burlington. Through September 2.
ARTWORK:"Jaquelin and Heather" by Phebe Mott
For a figurative painter, the best subjects are sometimes the most mundane. Consider Milton Avery's lyrical yet almost primitive beach paintings, with titles as simple as "Haircut by the Sea" and "Dog by the Sea." Phebe Mott's solo exhibition, "Summer Serendipity," at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, includes 20 paintings and smaller works with equally unpretentious themes. Like Avery, Mott builds sturdy compositions with pedestrian subjects unencumbered by superfluous details. It is therefore easier to find greater meaning within them.
"I feel drawn to the flashes of life that might not get a lot of attention -- an old woman walking down the street, a man reaching for a cup of coffee," Mott states on her website. "These are moments that we don't think about, and I like to think I'm giving them some importance."
The Hinesburg artist won Best in Show at this year's Art's Alive festival in Burlington, and her unaffected themes no doubt help make her work memorable. But how Mott paints is even more important than what she paints.
The 60-by-18-inch vertical acrylic "Grandpa and Phebe Are Sailing" shimmers with feathery brushwork. Mott applies her colors in distinct layers. For this painting she blended whites and cerulean blue above a high horizon, cobalt and ultramarine in the water below. Her brushstrokes create rippling rhythms in the simple arrangement of diagonal stripes that form the sail. Two small figures perched in the boat seem delicate and centered, literally and figuratively, as the sailboat glides through the fair afternoon.
"Man with Oars" also has a sailing theme. The 60-by-52-inch blue-and-white painting shares many similarities with "Grandpa and Phebe Are Sailing," but has a broader range of lines. The man, waist-deep in the lake, carries oars out to a small boat with furled sails. Wavy lines of differing weights describe the reflections of the mast, the ropes and the man himself.
Rather than glazing thin layers of paint, Mott generally chooses to scumble. In that process she often drags neutral hues over warm ones, which picks up the textures as well as the colors of preceding paint layers: The steel gray of the schoolyard sidewalk in "Rain" was dragged over a red underpainting; a mixture of darker hues was brushed over the yellow ocher of the beauty-shop rug in "The Wedding VIII (Lea)." Mott also adds sand, modeling paste and other foreign ingredients to her paint, giving her surfaces a textural dimension.
The 30-by-36-inch "Jaquelin and Heather," an abstract double portrait, includes some of Mott's most elaborate textural layers. Collaged under the figures are swirls of cutout sandpaper, or something similar; gritty shapes under the sky's blue seem like rushing clouds or invisible gusts of wind.
Avery said of his work, "I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors, form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter." This dedication to abstract formalism is at once intuitive and consciously constructed. Mott seems to have similar inclinations. Her oldest painting in the show, from 1999, is the 36-by-24-inch abstract landscape entitled "Green Sky." In it, blue mountains recede into the distance, passing from deep indigo to lighter turquoise and crested by deep-crimson ridgelines; the sky is a flat, acidic green. Although Mott produced "Green Sky" while still a student at the University of Vermont, its forthright brand of abstraction remains evident in her current work. As her painting continues to mature, Mott's portrayals of "moments that we don't think about" are likely to gain wider recognition.