Gallery & Studio Magazine, NYC, September/October, 2006

Discovering the Pastoral Side of Vincent Arcilesi

By Ed McCormack


Since his art school days, the fiercely independent artist Vincent Arcilesi, whose mature work Edward Lucie-Smith described in his book American Realism as a deliberate turning away from the accepted idea of the Modern, has been a prolific painter of landscapes and, more recently, of cityscapes. At the Art Institute of Chicago, Arcilesi was one of the few students less interested in jumping on the Hairy Who bandwagon than in immersing himself in the school's terrific collection of Impressionist and Postimpressionist masterpieces.

Indeed, Arcilesi invariably includes smaller landscapes and cityscapes in his exhibitions of large thematic figure paintings, set in various locales around the world. And the close observer will notice that many of them, besides being  finished works  of art in their own right, also serve as alla prima studies for the backgrounds in his erotically charged postmodern allegories.

Arcilesi usually reproduces some of his landscapes in his exhibition catalogs to make the point that that they are not aesthetic stepchildren but an essential part of his oeuvre. Yet they are often upstaged by the spectacular sexiness of his mural-scale canvases of classically comely nudes striking poses in the streets and plazas of the world’s great cities. People tend to go so ga-ga over the palpable pulchritude he evokes in his figure paintings that they sometimes overlook the  subtler charms of his landscapes. The pity of this is that, in doing so, they also overlook the fact that every facet of nature can be as great a source of sensual delectation as the most beautiful human body, when caressed by the brush of a painter as acutely attuned to each and every nuance of visual experience as Arcilesi happens to be.

Arcilesi first made this point two years ago with a superb exhibition of landscapes at 2/20 Gallery, 220 West 16 Street, and now reinforces it with an equally  splendid mini-retrospective, Arcilesi Around the World—Part II: Landscape Survey 1966–2006, on view  in the same venue from October 5 through 19.

The present exhibition of 27 oils on canvas includes works in which the painterly fluidity that still enlivens Arcilesi’s most exacting compositions in a more learned and exquisitely controlled way is given free reign under the sway of the artist’s youthful infatuation with the gestural exuberance of Abstract Expressionism and the protocubistic color construction of Cezanne. These influences are already skillfully assimilated in “Highland Mountain, Aspen” 1966, where the clouds floating in the clear blue sky are as craggily executed as the russet hills and verdant patches below, indicating a rugged path Arcilesi could have taken had he not chosen to apply his painterly vigor to more complex challenges.

His mastery is almost fully achieved in the large 1985 canvas “Keene Valley in the Adirondacks,” a peculiarly American vista, reminiscent for its heroic sweep of the Hudson RiverValley School and the Luminists. Here, descending layers of shapely cumulonimbi, sunlit mountain mists, and lush green foliage evoke a natural panorama as rhapsodic as anything by Cole or Durand. Characteristically, Arcilesi updates the scene with colloquial details such as telephone poles, a yellow truck traversing a strip of highway, and the tiny figures of his own two children romping in a field in the foreground. Yet these hints of modernity in no way undercut the composition’s eternal majesty; quite the contrary, they serve as markers of scale and impart to the picture an exuberance that enhances its immediacy.

In between the gestural excursions of paintings such as “Highland Mountain, Aspen,” and the ambitious grandeur of “Keene Valley in the Adirondacks,” we see the young artist trying on various modes of representation, ranging from “Kalamazoo River,” 1971, where the chromatic heightening approaches the electric rainbows of Wayne Thiebaud, to the pastoral naturalism of “Trees of Windham,” 1975. Arcilesi  develops the latter vein even further in the 1981 canvas “Mountain View, Prattsville,” a composition that puts a sophisticated spin on the type of subjects favored by the primitive limners of  colonial America, with its complementary patterns of trees dotting a grassy slope and tiny cows grazing in the meadow below.

In more recent years, working up to theme shows inspired by his travels abroad, Arcilesi has progressed to a species of landscape painting roughly analogous to the work of those few writers who raise travel writing to the highest levels of literary endeavor. Among the more exotic examples are three 2001 canvases of “Palmeraie, Marrakesh,” in which tall palm trees set against distant mountains or pink stucco skylines invite the gestural paint handling at which Arcilesi still excels in his alla prima work, passages of which he frequently integrates with wizardly finesse into the backgrounds of his epic figure compositions to retain a sense of freshness and spontaneity within the overall meticulousness of his realist technique.

Arcilesi’s  seamless synthesis of painterly fluidity and detailed descriptiveness is seen in both the California view “Golden Gate Bridge,”1993, and the Paris scene “Ecole Militaire,” 1997. However, it is especially striking in “Peterhof,” 2003, which  harmoniously melds Imperial Russian architecture and gold statuary with breezily brushed clouds, flowers, and foliage. And he continues to perfect it, as evidenced by “The Brooklyn Bridge” and “Palermo,” both painted in 2006.

In the former painting, Arcilesi takes such poetic liberties as adjusting the scale of the New York skyline and even moves the Empire State Building closer to the shore in order to emphasize the dynamism of the bridge’s soaring span, which he exalts in conversation  as being “like a cathedral to me.” The latter painting presents a bird’s eye-view of three tiny female figures in swimsuits striding past the curvaceous aquamarine pool of a luxury hotel, nestled among mountains and Edenic vegetation.

The cinematic sweep of the composition suggests a scene in a James Bond film set in the Mediterranean, as though the camera is about to zoom in on the three women as they head for some mysterious assignation. For here, as in the large figure paintings for which he is best known, Vincent Arcilesi introduces a note of narrative drama that is characteristic of his best work, yet rarely seen in the genre of landscape painting.

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