Jeff White & Michael Orwick: Masters of Light, The Gallery at the Watershed
by Luke Fannin
“Masters of Light,” featuring landscape painters Michael Orwick and Jeff White, is the latest show at Eugene’s Gallery at the Watershed. While these talented artists more than merit solo exhibitions, it truly does seem as though their paintings belongs together. Beyond the very general, their work isn’t overly similar, and yet it’s exceedingly complementary. As the show’s title suggests, the depiction light and its myriad effects is central to the work of both artists, but Orwick and White have taken their mastery into realms much more complex, far less tangible, than simple light and shadow.
Just why these artists fit so well together is not so easy to pin down. Maybe it’s the way they utilize negative space, drawing the eye through a painting while simultaneously engaging the edges of the canvas, never for a second allowing us to forget what might lie beyond -- as in White’s “Enchanted Moments,” where sky and water heighten the layered effect of clouds and mountains, asking us to keep looking up, up, up... Or in Orwick’s “Get Low,” where the moon seems to be pulling the sky down into the otherwise crowded tree line. Or is it the way each, in his own distinct manner, occasionally leaves ever-so-subtle traces of the uncanny, from the other-worldy red glow of Orwick’s “Crimson Clover” to the awesome figure who seems to be emerging from the clouds in White’s “Talisman at the Gates”?
Perhaps it is the striking range each displays in this show. White’s “Harmony in Motion” is an apt example of his trademark dramatic skies and cloud formations, swinging wildly between utter serenity and perpetual, swirling chaos. This painting stands in stark contrast to his pointillist landscape, “Fall Splendor,” and its profound, perfect stillness. Orwick’s range is perhaps less stylistically obvious, but, in terms of effect, just as dramatic. The familiar beauty of “Oregon Vineyard” is representative of his appeal. With its glowing rows of vines receding into a climbing, hazy landscape, this piece manages to be both quaint and expansive. In contrast, “Cool Breath” eludes the overtly familiar altogether. All detail is lost in shadow, heightened by the golden light of the background, creating a mystery far more inviting than it is imposing.
But maybe the answer is closer to home. Gallerist Amy Isler Gibson calls Orwick and White “beloved Oregon artists,” and of course she’s right. These landscape painters are two fine examples of the Pacific Northwest’s deep pool of artistic talent, and those of us privileged enough to see their work on a regular basis, to live in and near the landscapes that inspire them, is enough to make us feel a certain sense of ownership -- pride, even -- in these two artists who, in a manner of speaking, represent us and our corner of the world.
But, perhaps unintentionally, Ms. Isler Gibson’s simple sentiment points to something at the very heart of these artists’ work, the quality which seems to tie them together so well: it is not merely the artists who are beloved, but the Oregon they depict. So powerfully do Orwick’s stately vineyards and meditative sunsets, and White’s astonishing skyscapes and serene woodlands, impose themselves upon our own emotional memory that they become the places we live, visit, and remember -- as much as, even more than, their real-world counterparts. Orwick compares it to storytelling, whereas White sees something akin to a Rorschach inkblot, but the result is the same: these are more than just landscapes; they are our venues, settings in which we, the audience, become characters with unique experiences. Such an accomplishment transcends mere regional appeal, and requires so much more than solid technique and talent with a paintbrush. It demands empathy and human understanding of the most profound kind. Plein air painters are always saying how the eye sees differently than the camera -- well, as Orwick and White clearly show, the heart sees differently than either.
For all it has to offer, here is a show that simply doesn’t stop giving. It includes the work of a special guest: one Elena Orwick, nine, daughter of Michael. In her artist’s statement, Miss Orwick says, “I see beauty in everything and everyone ... and that is what inspires me.” This infectious, precocious charm notwithstanding, her work evidences startling talent and maturity in one so young, from the elegant simplicity of “Last Leaves” to the surprising depth of “Golden Hour on the Bend.” I’m far from qualified to throw around the term “prodigy,” but this young artist is one to watch.
“Masters of Light” runs at the Gallery at the Watershed, 321 Mill Street, through September 14.