Oregon painters George Kettlewell and Kersti Hamann have an unusual artistic relationship.
They’re a couple – and, no, that’s not so strange among artists. What’s more unusual is that they regularly consult each other about their work even while it’s in process. Living together in Cannon Beach, they paint the world around them, from ocean to beach to trees and mountains and forest, in a steady artistic conversation that is so intense that, at first glance, their paintings seem not just similar but almost indistinguishable when you walk into the Schrager & Clarke Gallery downtown, where an exhibit of their work is on display through September 19.
“Messages,” as the exhibit is titled, was curated by Eugene lawyer and art connoisseur Roger Saydack, who has put together two previous shows of Kettlewell’s work for the gallery. The last was in 2006.
The two artists met at Kent State University in the 1970s. They are not quite reclusive – they attended their reception at the gallery last week – but they don’t mingle deeply in the art world and so are not widely known outside the coast gallery where Saydack first saw one of Kettlewell’s paintings years ago.
Saydack, who is best known in the music world here as head of the committee who selected the last four music directors for the Eugene Symphony, starting with Marin Alsop, has one of the best eyes for painting I know. He’s also a giant fan of early to mid-20th century Oregon painting by artists such as C.S. Price and Charles Heaney.
So it’s no surprise that “Messages” is an exquisite, sophisticated and satisfying show of painting that recalls the work of Heaney and Price, without being in any way derivative of any particular artist or tradition. Rather, the two painters seem to have put in the quiet time it takes to master a craft and develop a vision.
The close resemblance between the works by the two artists begins to dissolve as soon as you spend any time in the gallery with their paintings.
Hamann’s work is lighter, more articulate, and more representational. A series of small beach paintings arrayed together on one wall of the gallery are practically as turquoise as David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings. If you saw one of them by itself at a tourist gallery you might pass it by, assuming it was just another quick seascape knocked off by a Sunday painter. But look more carefully and you find a very lively eye for the motion of waves and the shapes of the coast.
One painting in particular, titled “Stella II,” shows the figure of a dog walking out of the water. It perfectly captures the motion of its subject with an economy of line and stroke. You can practically smell the wet dog and the salt water.
Kettlewell’s work is darker, more impressionistic. Some of his paintings are completely abstract, but the best ones combine glimpses of representation – people, buildings, trees – with lively splashes of brushwork that serves as a counterpoint to the darker background.
In one of my favorites, “Elk Creek,” a small area of blue reflective water at the center of the painting punches a hole in the landscape that surrounds it.
Both artists’ work creates a strong sense of place, not of a literal landscape, exactly, but not one of sheer fantasy, either. It’s as though they both paint from an actual landscape that only the two of them can see.
Go see this show while you can.