All images copyright Mark Workman

Pennsylvania Landscapes
Mark Workman at Fischbach Gallery

BY Maureen Mullarkey

The British painter Prunella Clough once admitted "I like paintings that say a small thing, edgily." It was a very English comment, running counter to the American preference for Thinking Big about what art should look like and what it should address. Accustomed to saying grand things about art, American artists and commentators alike share a taste for grandiloquence. The better to impress you, my dear.

Hence, the solace of this pair of unassuming exhibitions, Workman in the gallery proper, Sullivan in the adjoining space. As we should expect from Fischbach’s stable, neither artist troubles with the pretense that art is moving us toward some historically appointed destination. Each works candidly within traditional genres: Workman with classical restraint, Sullivan with an agitated effectiveness that stands surrogate for subtler qualities. They complement one another in tone and intention, each revealing a certain edginess in very different ways.

I like the temper of Mark Workman. It is marked by introversion, is quiet and credible. He does not strain for effect. His work, even when it reaches panoramic length, remains intimate in tone and reticent in feeling. With a minimum of painterly means—all pieces here are acrylic on paper—he conveys a convincing sympathy with his motifs, often little more than a stand of trees or a single one. And he is magical with trees! He traces volutes of branches, contraposed to a winter sky or sharp, sunless light, with rare delicacy. Call it love.

Workman lives and produces in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It ought not surprise anyone to learn that he is native to the area. You sense familiarity in the work. His landscapes are presented as quotidian reality, something homely, observed and understood from within. These are not "scenes" that a tourist, on the qui vive for something picturesque, might look for. And they testify to the value of plain statement.

Mark Workman studio

Tension here derives from the painter’s scrupulous respect for detail and the precise edges of things while, at the same time, subordinating both to his own felt response. It is a muted dialectic, yielding a taut sensuousness that pays equal homage to the motif and to the transfiguring power of his own sensibility. Home Planet, 1999, metamorphoses the contour of a cultivated slope, outlined against cloudless sky like the curve of earth itself, into a meditation on creation and man’s place in it.

Workman’s pastorales are not innocent of progress. The stark geometry of a piece of construction equipment rises in the foreground of Shallow Pond, 1999. Live Wire, 1999, is dominated by a single utility pole, subject in turn to the encroachment of vines and the casual disregard of a flock of crows. Forget the voltage in the lines. Nature keeps on advancing its claims.

Devoid of rhetoric, Workman’s approach continues in a gracious line of descent from George Inness. Among nineteenth century American painters, Inness was pivotal in turning from declamatory styles of landscape painting in favor of a personal, sensual alternative. But Workman’s strong sense of design—dignity of spacing, overall grace of arrangement—evokes a classical refinement that links him to Corot, as much as to the fathers of landscape painting, Titian and Georgione. It is this element of design, more so than his ready gift for the changing conditions of air and light, that distinguishes him.

Too many contemporary landscapists rely on the decorative effects of light and atmosphere to carry the day. Mood music for the eyes. But Kenyon Cox, in The Classic Point of View, was right to stress the difference between aura and pictorial structure: "Without design there may be representation, but there is no art." The serene austerity that undergirds Workman’s lovely atmospheric effects derives from the rigor of his will to compose. It is a crucial component.