Zero Weather

Anita Mazzucca, Snow on Cross Road, 2012, Courtesy Fischbach Gallery, New York City

"Zero Weather," a group show at the Fischbach Gallery in New York City (January 3–February 2, 2013) focused on the aesthetic potential of winter. The rich cultural history of the season encompasses themes of desolation and death-defying celebrations like the solstice, the Roman Saturnalia and Christmas, as well as fairy tales and sagas of polar exploration. A historical survey of zero-weather art would include Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s spectacular iceberg images, along with, perhaps, Victorian artist Edwin Landseer’s savage polar bears and documentary footage from South, chronicling Shackleton’s expedition.

Winter pictures offer variations on a number of recognizable tropes. The contemporary artists in the Fischbach exhibition ignore the sublime in favor of what the Impressionists called "effets de neige," well represented in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition "Impressionists in Winter" (1999). It is easy to see the visual appeal. Winter landscapes get down to basics: many trees are stripped bare, a blanket of snow transforms the terrain, simplifying forms, and frigid weather drives humankind indoors. Austerity can reveal beauty, and some of the exhibition artists work in an icy pastoral mode. Anita Mazzucca’s Snow on Cross Road (2012) presents an elegant and orderly country road, flanked by evergreens, on one side, and spindly saplings outlined against a snowy field, on the other. A stately bare tree, positioned just off center, lifts its branches into the vast, cool blue sky. The well-defined horizon and perspective clues have a classical logic, and details snap into focus in the clear air. Jeffrey Vaughn takes a different compositional approach in Snowy Branches and Shadows (2012), plunging us into a woodland interior. The square painting has the flatness of a Japanese print, eschewing the illusion of spatial recession. Over half of the image is deep snow. Above that, a screen of tangled branches is backlit by a glittering mosaic of pink and gold. Still, the picture remains firmly in the realist tradition: Vaughn captures the physicality of snow and cold air.

Mazzucca and Vaughn emphasize the beauty of winter. Other artists explore the harshness and danger of the season. That visual style was a specialty of early-twentieth-century painters such as Robert Henri and George Bellows. In their urban snowscapes, huddled citizens make their way through inhospitable, treacherously obscure streets or shiver in frigid blue sunlight. George Siejka brings that sense of rawness to Winter River (2007). There is no tranquility in the scene, a landscape scarred with relics of industry—railroad tracks, an abandoned mill—and given demonic energy by the churning, icy river. Ryan Coburn’s Dead Winter (2012) is as bleak as its title, with narrow tree trunks and branches like scratches in a palette of blue, grey, black and dingy white. The nearly abstract picture reduces nature and the artist’s repertoire of blandishments to a bare minimum, yet it is oddly moving. Those sparse marks communicate the rigor of the season and testify to the artist’s ability to distill experience.

The exhibition largely avoids scenes illustrating winter activities, which go back to medieval calendars, the remarkable hunts and skating parties of Bruegel, and the cozy prints of Currier and Ives. Artists in this show make more oblique references to domesticated winter. In Alexandra Tyng’s Back Yards in Snow (2008), a quilt of yards, houses and trees softly darkens in the gathering dusk. Pools of inviting warmth beckon from lighted windows. Nancy Hagin’s Winter Solstice (2005) is a still life, unusual in the context of the show. The objects are not obviously symbolic or decorative. An old-fashioned metal pitcher and lamp, a basket and an arrangement of reeds in a jar are united by a palette of grey, white and rusty brown. Crisp shadows play against the backdrop, a white sheet that mimics snow. The deliberateness of the grouping suggests a kind of altar. One of the more unusual works is a painted acrylic sphere, almost like a paperweight. A pretty country house sits in a field of snow, with a low sun casting pink-gold shadows, in Christopher Evans’s Winter Branches (2005). We view this picturesque vignette through the convex distortion of the branches, laden with snow and spreading out in a web of delicate black lines. Evans’s optical trickery underlines the playfulness of art. As part of the venerable scheme of the Seasons, winter is an idea as much as a physical experience.

"Zero Weather" is an interesting exhibition, both for the skillful observations of the artists represented and for the rich possibilities the theme suggests for further exploration. Fischbach Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 759-2345.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1