ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dennis Liberty and Leo Neufeld prove that oil and water can mix if the emulsifier is talent. Their show titled “The Necessity of Water” at the Dartmouth Street Gallery overflows with land and seascapes celebrating the life giving properties of liquid mater.
Liberty is taking a hiatus from his highly acclaimed “101 Views of the Sandias” series in order to return to his earlier interest in rivers, streams and oceans. His exploration of water touching stones allowed Liberty to transition from abstraction to realism, though his work no matter how detailed remains in the truest sense, abstract.
In 2007, Liberty painted “Water Touching Stone: Yellowstone” that allows viewers to look down through crystal clear water as it slowly flows over a rock covered streambed. The abstractly composed painting has a contemplative mood exuding peace and tranquility.
This year Liberty releases a violent gusher with “Water Touching Stone: The Mother Well,” a waterfall threatening to inundate the viewer and flood the gallery with matritamah (the Vedic term for water – the most maternal element).
Liberty is a macho peddle-to-the-metal ex-California surfer who drives a sports car and lives in a rawhide studio. But, his extensive exploration of water themes over the years can be seen by Jungians as a search for his archetypal feminine nature.
The mother well could be a surrogate womb as well as a reference to one of Liberty’s admitted inspirations, abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, whose work was known for its large scale and powerful imagery.
In his artist statement, Liberty acknowledges Motherwell’s paintings as well as the cross-cultural mythological symbolism of water as the blood of life.
Liberty also mentions the liquid, solid and gas states of water that allow it to echo so many other forms of mater.
In “Water Touching Stone: Chi,” Liberty leaps into the realm of Asian painting motifs, Asian medical science, martial arts practice and the many life forms that take their sustenance from the energy produced by wave action.
He uses a horizontal composition with diagonal divisions to depict waves splashing on moss covered stones. In front of the wave line is a small pool of motionless clear water that appears to be an independent living entity.
Neufeld is best known for his tightly rendered figurative and portrait work with its academically supported solid draftsmanship and careful brushwork. Until he began painting landscapes and seascapes several years ago the idea of Neufeld loosening up was a distant dream.
For this show he stowed away his liner and blending brushes in favor of palette knives and a variety of 1/2-inch to 1 1/2-inch chisel point brushes with which he joyfully emulates splashing waves with splashes of paint.
Since all of Neufeld’s artwork reflects his introspective personality and his contemplative life experiences, his entire body of work becomes a metaphorical sacred autobiography.
He made a series of spiritual pilgrimages to visit a retreat on the California Coast for personnel healing. While there, he fell in love with the Pacific shore and its vast expanse of roiling waters.
Neufeld presents a horizontal panorama replete with breakers, scudded clouds and natural stone barriers in “Blue Water.” The small painting with its syncopated rhythm has roots in European impressionism and expressionism, with a stylistic nod to Maurice Prendergast.
Having lived on or near both American coasts, when I think of crashing waves the picture that pops to mind is filled with dramatic splashes of water with windborne foam, water and mist soaking bystanders and wetting wind bent trees.
In Neufeld’s “Crashing Waves” there’s way less drama and violence than the title conjures in my imagination. But, since it does work as a painting and expressive landscape is a completely new artistic direction, Neufeld gets a free pass on this one. I only hope he will punch it up, in future renderings.
One of my favorite of his landscapes is “Juniper” in a side gallery. The large-format plein-air portrait of a single tree stopped me in my tracks. Neufeld truly apprehended the character and context of high desert flora in a single canvas. Liberty also continues to do very well at the easel.
This is a do-not-miss, two-thumbs-up exhibition by two artists who are rapidly evolving.