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Susan Fogel Morris at Museum of the Hudson Highlands

September, 2000

IT’S AN OLD maxim – "What’s well drawn, is always well painted." Jean August Dominique Ingres is credited with saying this, but most fine artists before and after him have always known it. Case in point: Susan Fogel Morris and her present exhibit* at the Museum of the Hudson Highland’s Kenridge Farm in Cornwall, New York. Portraits, Still Lifes and Landscapes – some 50 oil paintings in all – comprise this show, any one of which consummately confirms Ingres’ dictum. With her solid academic background in the classical tradition of creating fine art (she has studied at both the National Academy of Design and The New York Academy of Art), Morris’s brushwork more than does justice to her years of perfecting the art of drawing from the cast. Watercolorist, pastelist (she is a member of the Pastel Society of America), and oil painter – her present medium of choice – she isaccomplished in all, disproving the almost universal modern assumption that practice and proficiency in drawing is a handicap to good painting. Because they are so visually compelling I was drawn almost immediately to the floral still lifes and will begin by discussing them. Mostly done in large format, these lush renditions of flowers are reminiscent of the work of the Flemish masters, each bloom lovingly limned and sensuously rendered. Set against tonally rich backgrounds that subtly harmonize with their major motifs – large, varied and rich displays of multi-hued and textured flora – many are accentuated with mini-still lifes of fruit and/or smaller vessels at the bases of the larger vases which contain the flowery display; patterned table linens complete these classically composed symphonies of proportion, color, form, texture, and light. Light, as the title of the exhibit suggests, is – even more than the ostensible floral motifs – the "subject" of Morris’s paintings for it is light, after all, that makes all visual phenomena possible. Her painterly handling of light is gorgeously exemplified in her study of peonies, an 8 x10 oil, the smallest of her still lifes and one that masterfully holds its own alongside its much larger counterparts. The play of light on the outer petals of the fully blown peonies makes them fairly leap out from the muted background upon which they are juxtaposed, making this compact and dramatic little study of light and form among one of the finest in the show. Morris’s sensitivity to the vicissitudinous nature of light undoubtedly arises from her practice of painting without the aid of artificial illumination. When not painting en plein air, she has disciplined herself to paint in a studio lit solely by the natural light that falls through northerly-positioned skylights. If felicitously used to concentrated effect in her still lifes, Morris’s treatment of light in her landscapes is equally impressive if only because it shows her ability to broaden her sense of its all-encompassing capacity on a grander scale. Though I began this critique by discussing her still lifes, I was initially drawn to her landscapes – a favored genre of mine, made more so of late because there are so few landscape painters today who competently ply their trade. For this viewer, Susan Fogel Morris combines in her work all those qualities which make for successful landscape painting – composition, sensitivity, and draftsmanship. When the mastery of such skills is coupled with a reverent eye for natural beauty – without the affectation of cloying, saccharine overflourish – the results can be irresistible. Morris is particularly skillful in her representation of ambient light, and whether it be a diffuse, summery haze ("Pochuck Creek"), an early mist ("Mist Rising at Raynor’s Farm"), a bright noon-day sun ("Sycamore Duet"), or a crisp autumn day ("Autumn’s Show"), trees, fields, watercourses, and buildings convincingly emerge from the enveloping light to imprint themselves on our retinas. I have left off mention of the portraits until last not because they are in any way inferior, but simply because they are represented by fewer examples – three in this exhibit. Again, in her portraiture as in her still lifes and landscapes, Morris’s years of classical training come obviously to the fore, and though a mere handful, the three portraits are enough to establish her credentials in the genre. This is an exhibit that will surely delight the connoisseur of fine craftsmanship and cultivated sensibility. A painter of exceptional talent, Susan Fogel Morris warrants wider exposure, and a trip to Kenridge Farm is highly recommended to those who still subscribe to Bernard Berenson’s idea that art ought to be ‘life enhancing.’ I am confident that a visit to Kenridge Farm to view "Painting the Light" will go a long way toward lifting your spirits.

*"Susa Fogel Morris: Painting the Light" (Sep 7 – Nov 3): Museum of the Hudson Highlands at Kenridge Farm, Rte 9W South, Cornwall, NY (845) 534-5506.

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