Light, Magic, Memory in the Landscape Paintings of Scott Prior

by Sarah Sutro

Scott Prior’s bucolic, more than real landscapes hold layers of yearning, a romantic and retrospective vision. His traditional, classic scenes of villages, sun-bathed fields and memory-laden gardens comment on the passage of time, like Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, “those myriad mornings rise/when every living thing/cast its shadow in eternity/and all day long the light/like early morning/with its sharp shadows shadowing/a paradise…”1 He combines familiar landscapes to create an idyll of peacefulness, bathed in the light of dawn and sunset.

Prior was born in 1949 and spent most of his childhood in Topsfield, Massachusetts, a small town north of Boston within range of the Atlantic coast. On his website he describes bike trips that led him to other towns outside the range of his family’s small world. These trips heightened his vision, developing an explorer’s sense of wonder and amazement on a child’s scale. As a teenager, he hung out at the seaside tourist resorts of Hampton Beach and Salisbury Beach, New Hampshire, where amusement parks may have sparked imagery for eventual paintings, as well as the Topsfield Fair with its rides and games. This sense of child-like discovery continues in his work in the present, where he recreates the feeling of newly discovered territory by turning the ordinary extraordinary, tweaking color and increasing contrasts within a penumbral shadow. The ordinary reality was his middle-class family, and his mother, an amateur painter, signing him up for painting lessons at age fourteen, recognizing his self-motivation early.

Community Garden at Sunrise I, 2004–06, Collection of the New Britain Museum of Art, New Britain, Connecticut

As a high school student, Prior was intensely involved in astronomy, winning a state science fair in physics and eventually attending UMass Amherst as a scholarship student in that field. After one semester, realizing he had problems with math, he switched from science to printmaking, discovering much to learn technically in that discipline. He had always possessed an ability to draw, and finding other realist artists in Northampton, he stayed on after graduation. In college the 60s had eroded the curriculum in the painting department to sheer expression with no technique. Eventually Prior taught himself to paint maturely, learning “by looking and doing.”2

Valley in Winter, 2014, Collection of the ArtistIn Northampton he met the realist artist Gregory Gillespie, an obsessive, spiritually inclined painter twelve years Prior’s senior, who became his friend and mentor. Other realists in the area included Gillespie’s wife Fran, Robin Freedenfeld, Jane Lund and Randall Deihl, all of whom came to be known as ‘Valley Realists.’ The Pioneer Valley and Berkshires provided Prior with subject matter, and he has used California and Cape Cod landscapes as well. An accomplished photographer, he often takes as many as a hundred photographs for a painting, merging images in Photoshop to create a final workable template. He puts a grid over the photograph and draws the scene very simply on one of the gessoed wood panels he favors. In landscapes, he usually paints from top to bottom, trying to get the painting right the first time, glazing over certain parts later, working meticulously with tiny brushes. The scale of his landscapes is diminutive—although his more ambitious figure paintings and landscape paintings can be quite large, such as Red Ball in Early Spring (1994), 72"x 108".

A child’s ball shows up in many of Prior’s paintings. The balls rest, abandoned in a pond, collecting snow, or by a tree in autumn, yet never showing the effects of time. In summer paintings, balls linger in light-filled pools or on bright summer grass, color and pattern intact. They are players in the mnemonic, haunting, nostalgic quality of Prior’s work, a kind of time capsule.

Deep reflection within a painting overshadows any question of technique. The viewer accepts the sense of wholeness offered by the painter and does not ask how the painter achieved what he/she did. Sometimes questions are asked later, and studies evolve that illuminate particular technologies used in the era. Vermeer’s work is like this—admired, collected and shown, for years no questions were asked of provenance or production. Yet art historians came to suggest that Vermeer and other seventeenth-century Dutch artists used the camera obscura, where an image is viewed through projection of light through a pinhole onto a wall or in a box, a kind of primitive camera capturing light, image and detail. The use of that primitive camera by Vermeer and others has always been a curious footnote to the brilliant, light-drenched Dutch canvases known so well. For contemporary painters, using digital tools such as Photoshop, heightening color, enlarging details and instantly seeing and manipulating images is increasingly commonplace. Like the camera obscura, convex mirrors and other lenses reviewed by David Hockney in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters,3 digital tools are now taken for granted as part of the available range of media techniques used in our time.

Yet these tools also can alter perception. In Prior’s work, color seems to be accentuated or enhanced. Both his choice of time of day, temperature, mood and season and the ability to digitally enhance the tone and relationship among colors increase our emotional reaction to his work. His paintings seem to capture memory, increasing responsiveness to light and its effects. Many works offer a warm glow of perpetual summer, Eden-like, and even in winter, homes, abandoned toys and remnants of summer landscapes continue to glow.

In Community Garden at Sunrise I (2004–06), Prior presents a community garden in late summer. Overgrown flowers and vines choke fences and climbing structures. An old green metal chair is half hidden in the foliage; a bench’s angles are softened by tall grass. In the pearly light of early morning, a sky mottled with light orange, blue and grey like a diminished fireball candy sweeps over the top of the painting, while the lower two thirds consist of a tangle of green growth. Dots of yellow and red flowers cause the eye to dance around the strongly horizontal surface, while strange, otherworldly overgrown plants on trellises create a kind of surreal ménage of creatures in the background. An abandoned boot stuck on a post upside down offers a gesture of human presence. In the dense world portrayed here, with excessive texture and obsessive detail, a sense of menace hovers until the awkward boot and dismissed furni-ture become humorous, actors on a vaudeville stage.

Prior’s abandoned amusement park paintings show the “effects of time on landscape,” which might more realistically be called ‘time’s ruin.’ Mountain Park (35"x72", 2002) presents the graffitied walls and remnants of game booths of a once-favored destination. Families from Holyoke Center could take the trolley to the outskirts of town for outings, concerts, games. Now the park is a hollow, empty shadow, a place being overgrown by nature. In late autumn at dusk, bits of color on buildings’ contours glow strangely against bare tracings of trees in background mist, becoming artifacts of a time of innocent pleasure. Nostalgia for previous happy times pervades this painting and others, including more light-hearted and warm-toned images than this one.

Prior speaks nostalgically of the 1960’s, of Woodstock, the mixed blessings of freedom and freewheeling elation, as the Vietnam War raged. He calls it a “bad and good time.” The Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” recalls in its lyrics the “Pools of sorrow, waves of joy…drifting through my open mind…” including the refrain, “Nothing’s going to change my world, Nothing’s going to change my world…”4 Prior’s work evokes a similar polarity, gently suggesting timeless joys through artifacts of family ritual: picnic tables, beach towels left on summer laundry lines, pumpkins, birdbaths, sunflowers, arched flower trellises, lighted Christmas decorations, bonfires. In contrast, he also evokes the ravage of time with old houses, railroad tracks, diners, dark ponds and empty summer chairs.

Prior critiques many realists for focusing primarily on technique, insisting that the subject and feeling a painter paints is most important. Painters he respects and loves include Flemish Renaissance painters like Jan van Eyck, Pieter Breugel, George Inness, the Hudson River School painters, Martin Johnson Heade and the mysterious Louis Elshemius. Antonia Lopez-Garcia, a contemporary Spanish painter, is a fellow realist whose work he continues to admire. The British landscape painter and draughtsman Samuel Palmer also seems connected to what Prior is trying to do: discover the magic of nature in various light conditions, steeping the viewer in enchantment. Prior has shown for many years in realist galleries such as Alpha Gallery in Boston and at William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton.

In Valley in Winter (2014), a recent large painting he has spent five months on, Prior worked from photographs of ten different places to get the combination of location and image he wanted. The painting portrays a village nestled in between hills at the end of the day. The upside-down arc of hills is mirrored in the irregular-edged pond in the foreground. Cloaked in snow, the houses cluster together irregularly; while their lights, just turned on at dusk, create a cheerful, scattered effect. The painting is crisp, with dark edges and shapes against white. Details of dried grass and tree branches are part of the overall highly textured scene. A glaze of orange light rests on the pond’s ice, where a discarded child’s ball sits askew, frozen into the surface. A dark red barn and white rectangular roof are stable shapes in the lap-like valley. One can imagine walking briskly on the road that curves and winds through the village; the effect is timeless, familiar, without reference to clothing, style or era. No telephone lines etch across the space above houses. Color is dark/sweet, punctuated by warm yellows and oranges and a clear blue sky with purple clouds.

Influencing Valley in Winter is one of Prior’s favorite paintings, Pieter Breugel’s Hunters in Snow (1565), a work that casts cool light on a winter afternoon. This painting reminds him of Northampton and the Holyoke range, and he always yearned to do his own version. In Breugel’s attention to detail, sweep of dark branches and trees, crows and people one can see what interested Prior as an artist, especially the atmosphere of a darkening chilly afternoon. Unlike Breugel, in Prior’s work the only reference to people is a discarded ball and a snowman in the foreground. Both Prior and Breugel manifest a similar narrative interest in a place that is ‘home.’ Valley in Winter is a moment of time stopped and remembered, an iconic place. It is almost hard to imagine being able to see all these details of such a valley with the naked eye. The advantage of digital photography is the ability to attend to all parts of a scene at once, without atmospheric perspective, blurring or prioritizing one section of the painting over another.

Two Cows, 2005, Private CollectionSubtle humor, often hidden in Prior’s work, is evident in such paintings as Two Cows (2005). Next to a country road, these two animals have been caught as if in a theater spotlight. They turn to look at the painter, two sets of big eyes taking him in—their lanky bodies paused, parallel in stance—as if waiting to make a big decision. The painting consists of a simple blue house, a bank of trees, a vivid sky and the cows, almost a couple, standing by their home. The yellow line of the road completes this picture, offering a quick exit for the eye back into landscape. The road itself, a gorgeous purple reflecting sky, with hints of pink and orange where the rain is drying off, contrasts beautifully with the blandness of the brown and cream colored cows, together suggesting speed and stasis, human design and nature.

Prior’s simplest paintings describe a path or dirt road heading straight up into the distance at the center of the painting. Depicting different times of day and night, illumined or darkened by the forest surrounding, the changing color of the beaten track beckons. Favored times are sunrise or sunset. The composition offers little beyond a strong central line dizzyingly cutting the painting in two. Like the colors in some of his works that are almost too sweet to be real, these paintings feel like illustrated archetypal myths. Titled variously, Dirt Road, Sunset, Sunrise, Path along Old Railroad Bed, Dunes at Sunrise, they contrast with the sheer volume of detail in many of the other paintings—and offer an opportunity for projection of the viewer’s own memory, vision or spiritual need. In their emptiness, they are more like vessels for experience and feeling, in contrast to other more information-laden landscapes providing every cue of a scene, every feeling, every detail. They are like templates for reflection, like old photographs of Greek ruins.

Scott Prior, Dunes at Sunrise, 2005, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul StukaThe viewer asks that landscape reveal something about nature, that it take us into it, and that it tell us as well about the painter. Although it takes thousands of years for landscape to really change, in fact it is changing moment-to-moment and season-to-season. The painter attempts to stop the clock and capture timelessness. Prior’s paintings, then, are a reflection of the world of the 50’s when he was a child, the 60’s when he was a college student and young painter and the present, ever-changing moment. George Santayana, whose work was especially read and extolled in the sixties, wrote, “Art …recasts in idea a world which we have no present means of recasting in reality.”5 Prior’s paintings are longings for a timeless, almost spiritual present, yet are informed by the everyday, the “bad and good” of it. He seems to be haunted by a longing for clarity, simplicity and peacefulness that is thwarted. He mentions the character in “The Dead,”6 a short story by James Joyce, who gazes out at the snow at the end of the story, agonizingly aware that life is not simple or what he had understood it to be. The polarity of order and chaos; the poignancy of memory and time lost permeate his work.

Discovering magic, memory and human feeling imprinted in landscape, Scott Prior both dims and softens the light just enough in his paintings to take us along with him on his bicycle trip to a new town. Exploring both the unexpected and the familiar, the diner in winter, a red ball left by a huge tree, the picnic table abandoned in the rain, the central path to who knows where, he creates satisfying, appreciative paeans to life and to nature. He shows us how memories collect in the mind, how yearning for clarity and crispness pulls also towards timelessness and generality. In his paintings he reminds the viewer of how one would like things to be—and how art can rekindle idyllic memories of childhood—evoking a powerful vision of warmth and collective love. 

 

NOTES 

1. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions, 1958), 35.

2. Interview with the artist, March 28, 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Prior’s remarks are taken from this interview.

3. David Hockney, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

(London: Thames and Hudson, 2001).

4. The Beatles, Across the Universe (1969). Retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/across-the-universe-lyrics-beatles.html

5. George Santayana, Little Essays Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana (New York: Scribner, 1920), 114.

6. James Joyce, Dubliners (New York: The Modern Library, 1967).

 

 American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 33, Number 3