Friday, August 21, 2009
By Tom Wachunas
There are varying theories about the exact procedures behind the “Flemish Technique” of early 15th-century painting masters such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin. Most of those theories were developed in academic contexts during the 19th and early 20th centuries in an effort to preserve a precious tradition and teach its “secrets.” The fact of the matter is that available information recorded by the original practitioners on their specific formulas is somewhere between very scarce and non-existent. Still, we certainly know enough about manipulating oil paint so that the stunning and magical effects rendered by those old masters are achievable today. To do so with any degree of success, however, is nonetheless a task both daunting and noteworthy.
What was old is new again, and astonishingly so, as evidenced by the work of Stark County painter Frank Dale. His current show at the Canton Museum of Art is not only a passionate homage to an important chapter of art history, but a vital record of truly compelling painting in any era. And while the show is titled “In Search of Beauty,” there is clear proof here that he has found and delivered it abundantly.
Possessing neither the overbearing angst nor the vapid glitz displayed in many postmodernist works, Dale’s subjects are unabashedly traditional – portraits, still-lifes, landscapes- and lovingly painted. By that I don’t mean to imply a shallow sentimentality, though authentic sentiment is clearly present. The transcendent strength of his work springs from his consummate craftsmanship as a technician with brush and color, combined with an uncompromising eye for purely simple, uncluttered composition.
Look closely, for example, at how such paintings as “Young Woman in the Park” and “Summer Storm” lead and hold our eyes. In the former, our attention to the central face of the seated woman, resplendent in white, is diagonally reinforced by Dale’s handling of color and texture of the rocks toward the upper left, her hair, and the surface of the hat on her lap, toward the lower right. In the latter, the diagonal dynamic is at work again, this time between the red stop sign in the right foreground and the red car parked farther back, toward the center. Thus pulled into the scene, we look up the street to the looming storm clouds and can almost smell the ozone.
Beyond the mastery of formal pictorial devices that make these paintings worth savoring, though, is Dale’s technique – like that of the Northern Renaissance painters- of applying resin-oil glazes in thin layers. This produces a palpable depth of space and atmosphere, and a vibrancy of color that is simply not possible with direct, “single layer” application of paint.
These are pictures with a pulse, drawing us deep below their mirror-smooth surfaces. We become delightfully lost in their ethereal subtleties, as in the hypnotic drama of “San Diego Harbor Sunset,” with its spectacular range of liquid orange hues seamlessly blended into wisps of cooler, evening sky shades. Or the portrait called “Leitzel.” Her profile is kissed ever so gently by a halo of white, mesmerizing in much the same way that shimmering gems hold us captive.
And if you find your heart skipping a beat over such marvels as this, or your breathing arrested, be assured there’s plenty of life-giving breath here. It’s in the paintings.
Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art, “Leitzel,” oil on panel, 14” x 20”, 2005, by Frank Dale, from his exhibition “In Search of Beauty,” on view through November 1, 2009. For information, visit www.cantonart.org or call (330) 453 – 7666