Painter Bernard Chaet, who died in October at 88, has a bracing mini-retrospective at Alpha Gallery. Chaet came up with the first wave of Boston Expressionists who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the 1940s. He went on to teach at Yale University for nearly four decades, during which time Yale became one of the leading art schools in the country.
Chaet was a painter’s painter, concerned with how the basics — shape, space, color, and light — can coalesce into something electric. He was an expressionist in the elemental sense of the word: His brushwork was bold and fluid. The Boston Expressionists tended to use that painterly quality to capture agitated narratives and anxieties. That is less the case with Chaet. Rather, the more painterly his work grew over the years, the more it seemed to be only about painting itself.
In his earlier works here, the paint is thinner, the brushwork more constrained, and there’s a trace of uneasy, psychologically charged narrative. In “Sunset, North” (1959-60), a white-skinned woman in a big blue coat dominates the foreground as she watches a sunset cast an eerie, cool green over water. That green seeps into a sky seething with red and ocher. The vital, muscular seascape hints at those that dominate Chaet’s later paintings, but in this one the moody woman dominates. The artist’s interiors, such as “Blue Stairs,” 1971, are also deft, but careful.
In a 1997 interview with Alpha director Joanna Fink, Chaet says that using watercolors transformed his work; he sought to bring the immediacy of that medium to oil painting, and took his oils outside. As he focused on landscapes, the canvases became less coy and psychological, and more frontal and commanding. The landscapes are the best work here, chromatically and formally daring.
There’s “Broken Light” (2001-2005), a tall, narrow seascape with a fevered, concentric sun shedding its long, columnar reflection over acid-toned water and onto shuddering, red-green rocks at the bottom. And the royal blue in “Blue” (2008) gives the sky substance with great, thick, eddying daubs of paint, which describe imposing clouds sandwiched between green sky and green water.
Chaet, who lived on the North Shore, painted the same rock-anchored seascapes over and over again, but he brought a virility and freshness to his painting that made his best work startling.
Reyner, Gibbs look closer
Gold brightens up the darkest days of the year at Beth Urdang Gallery, where Nancy Reyner and Charlotte Andry Gibbs make liberal use of it in their paintings. Catch one of Reyner’s landscapes hanging in the gallery’s window on a sunny day, and it dazzles. But each artist is after more than that bewitching gleam — too much light and it interrupts the experience of looking.
Reyner lays on squares of gold leaf, then paints over them. In the mountainous “Lava and Blue Lake,” she applies the paint delicately, and in many ways. There are banks of cottony white clouds that look as though they were puffed on through a straw, vapors of green, and swipes of powder blue. These all conspire to create deep space, middle ground, and surface adornments. Sometimes the gold erupts through; sometimes it’s a warm, almost coppery backdrop. There’s a suggestion, in these hallucinatory landscapes, of Asian landscape painting, but the grid of gold leaf also winks at modernism.
Gibbs focuses on iconography, using gold leaf and paint to re-create flags, corporate logos, and legendary works of art. While crafting a gold American flag, or a Coca-Cola or Chevrolet logo in gold, feels like a too obvious jab at capitalism, all the works together draw intriguing formal connections.
The two-toned gold Chevy emblem, a squat, forward-leaning plus sign, in “Iconic” hangs beside “Homage to Josef Albers,” Gibbs’s gold version of the concentric squares in Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series. “Eternal — For Neil Armstrong,” a white gold circle on yellow gold, references the moon, but also the elemental geometry of the paintings of Kazimir Malevich, and it hangs near “IKONA (Icon),” a red and gold version of the circular Coke logo. Together, works like these link modernist art trends, from Malevich’s Suprematism to Pop, to some of the historic and visual signatures of the 20th century.
White is the palette at Vessels Gallery. “Winter Whites” features ceramicists who work in or
with white. Naoko Matsumoto’s “Coral Teapot” series features tiny pots that are creepy, fey, and exquisite. “Coral Teapot VI” looks covered with radiant barnacles, with spiky leaf-like forms for its handle. Joan Walton’s “Stretched White Tube” appears constructed with small, pebbly wads of gum, each seamed and crackly, mottled with brown. Judy Tavill’s vessels are deeply corrugated, creating a sense of fluid motion in a teapot or a bowl.
Also on view are Boston’s resident abstract expressionist Jo Ann Rothschild’s nutty and delightful cartoony drawings. These are spare and small compared with the artist’s paintings, less operatic and more sly. “Birthday, LC” features ragged inked circles, some squiggled over, some toothed or ringed with petals, frolicking around and over a steamy phantasm of pink folding into mauve — quite celebratory.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.