Zen Master Laurence Channing at Bonfoey
For years Laurence Channing was director of publications at the Cleveland Museum of Art, but would rise every morning hours before dawn to put in a few hours of drawing before he went to work. As this suggests, while his effects are delicate, there’s a stubborn intensity to his vision. He seems indifferent to the usual artistic tricks for calling attention to what he makes. His subjects are never overtly narrative or dramatic. He tends to explore things that we don’t usually attend to, such as a parking lot, a highway bridge, a weedy backyard, or conversely, something that’s a bit of an artistic cliché, like a lighthouse or a rose, which is somehow not a cliché after he renders it and that he enables us to see with fresh eyes. While realistic, his images feel like apparitions that float in the mind’s eye. The artist presents a new collection of such scenes, along with a few still lifes, in a solo show on view at Bonfoey Gallery through the end of the year.
This exhibition (Laurence Channing: Paintings and Pastels) might be his best so far. While the works are smaller than often in the past, this smallness only seems to accentuate their poetic intensity. Perhaps the most wonderful surprise is his evocative use of color. His roads and sidewalks are a flickering dance of subtle shades of yellow, blue, and mauve. The red blush of his remarkable rose floats into our consciousness like the aroma of a flower.
While he’s something of a loner, Channing’s work does relate to an American tradition of such outsiders. The shimmering evanescence of his treatment, the fondness for evocative effects, has some precedent in the shimmering snow-scenes of the American Impressionist John Twachtman; and his work also has some sort of spiritual connection with the subdued near-monochromatic paintings and charcoals of Edwin Dickinson, whose delicate creations have never caught on with a mainstream audience, but have made Dickinson something of a cult figure to a select group of aficionados, who admire him as “a painter’s painter.”
There’s also a certain elective affinity between Channing’s pastels and the early work of photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edouard Steichen, in their soft-focus phase, when they applied a similar sort of poetic treatment to seemingly mundane themes, extolled the disregarded, and were indifferent to the usual academic hierarchies of noble or dramatic subject matter.
Channing does not like to use words to describe his drawings, and is notably evasive when asked to describe himself or his work, but curiously one could argue that the effect of this exhibition is less like what happens when we see most paintings than it is like what happens when we’re reading a novel or a poem, and images float into our heads, which are at once ephemeral and as real as anything we actually encounter in real life.
Like a poem, the mood of his drawings is contemplative and poetic. They would be suitable accompaniment for a Zen tea gathering on the moon-viewing platform of the Katsura Palace, where a small group would gather to view the moon and write poetry in honor of the occasion. Like a Haiku, the game Channing is playing has something to do with evoking the seemingly infinite mystery and the fleeting, fugitive quality of a momentary experience–of being infinitely suggestive and yet of doing so with calculated humility and restraint.
Laurence Channing: Paintings and Pastels
Through December 30, 2021
1710 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 4411