This past winter, New York-based painter Tim Casey rode 100 miles on horseback through the snow with the Lakota, a Native American tribe in South Dakota. He’s been traveling the American West by motorcycle for the last 20 years — an escape from the urban art world he usually inhabits. The landscapes of the West show up transmuted and abstracted in Casey’s Rothko-esque compositions, along with the interiors of cheap motels and a grubby double-wide trailer where he stayed in the town appropriately named Interior, South Dakota. These paintings are now on view Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, along with New York-based Elizabeth Rogers’s gestural watercolor landscapes.
Casey was, full disclosure, my art teacher for several years at Bard High School Early College on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In one class, he mentioned striving to convey “a sense of something holy” in his paintings, and how such a high-minded goal can be unfashionable in a contemporary art landscape that often favors the cynical and ironic. The word “holy” sounded foreign in a secular school that usually prized critical thinking above all. But in so many words, Casey, a self-described “recovering Catholic,” communicated to the high school’s young heathens how one can still seek holiness outside the context of religion.
These paintings come out of Abstract Expressionist and modernist traditions. A series of small watercolors resemble looser, moodier Mondrians in their gridded compositions of muted blues, browns, and grays. From these small watercolors and photographs of motel and trailer interiors — beds, dressers, windows, chairs — Casey paints bigger acrylic abstractions. Each is built up slowly, like geologic formations, over the course of a year. Some spark the sensation of peering through rain-spattered windows into large, dark rooms with gauzy walls. Others are illuminated from within, covered with swaths of dripping white paint like spectral shrouds. The works fuse Rothko’s color fields with Vermeer’s mystical light, conveying how emotion and human presence transform space.
Like Casey’s, Elizabeth Rogers’s paintings are about emotional responses to particular places — half were painted in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and half were painted in the Catskills in New York. With sweeping brushstrokes and spontaneous gestures, these watercolor and gouache landscapes recall sumi-e, or the zen-inspired Japanese tradition of ink-wash painting, which Rogers studied extensively. You can feel the energy and motion of the painter’s hand while looking at clouds rendered in messy lavender swirls and mountains as splotches of blue and black.
The influence of Emil Nolde’s vibrant watercolors and William Turner’s loose, impressionistic landscapes also shows up here. Features of Rogers’s landscapes bleed into one another, creating immediate, emotional impressions of nature instead of studious attempts to replicate it. In their best compositions, both painters in the show manage to convey that “sense of something holy” that intrigued my high school art class years ago.
Tim Casey and Elizabeth Rogers continues at Sideshow Gallery (319 Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through December 6.