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January 2, 2018
Exploring “Modern Life” at the Church Street Gallery
Artist John Suplee, whose solo show at the Church Street Gallery ends soon, is one of the most literary painters I know. That was one reason why I put him in my book, 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley under the category of “Magic Realists and Story-tellers.” With decades of his experience as a full-time painter, Suplee has developed a style that has become looser and allegorical rather than tighter and super realistic. The latter is one way some contemporary artists evoke what has been termed a sense of “memory and magic.” Suplee manages to get the job done with his own self-styled realism.
My job is not write a treatise on Suplee’s oeuvre—Artspeak for body of work—or its context in art history. You’ll have to see his work for yourself. If you’re a longtime West Chester resident whose even remotely interested in art, it’s a good bet that you are familiar with Suplee’s motifs (oops, more Artspeak).
To simplify this to quick-read, blog standards, I can’t help but recall that old spaghetti sauce commercial when summarizing Suplee’s show. It’s aptly titled “Perils and Pleasures of Modern Life” and showcases 30 paintings depicting scenes and subjects that have built Suplee’s reputation and inspired near adoration among his collectors. In other words: it’s in there: the recognizable West Chester scenes, the European landscapes (in this case, Spain), the garden “portraits,” the stately trees—even one of Suplee’s splashy and colorful beach scenes.
In some ways, Suplee’s status as West Chester’s informal “resident” artist has helped the Church Street Gallery’s visibility. Giblin, who founded and manages the gallery, spoke of the community feedback they get by doing the little things such as hosting artist’s lectures and posting on the gallery web site that “children and dogs are welcome.”
The Church Street Gallery isn’t opposed to keeping a growing list of artists on the mailing list either, although the practice is now not that common, Giblin says. “Artists create a buzz about the gallery… We get thank you cards, flowers, and bottles of wine. They’re not just from artists either but from people who just want to thank us for being here.”
West Chester Inspirations
Speaking recently at the gallery, Suplee said that the beach painting was a last minute addition. Fortunately he paints quickly although his works are often years in the making. Much like a reporter or writer, Suplee can’t help but record or absorb by osmosis the world around him. As his wife, Carol Giblin, might admit, Suplee’s gift for social commentary means that he’s always working—in a fun way. That impulse was one reason why I wasn’t surprised that, in the past, he’s even painted the whoosh of bikers spinning by in West Chester’s annual Twilight Cycling Classic.
Picking out the West Chester “bits,” as the English say, whether it’s neighboring backyards emerging over time (think overgrown plants); or the way the sun shines on the locally-made brick, giving walls a rosy hue; or the house-of-cards arrangement of rooftops seen in aerial views—it’s all part of the joy of viewing his work. Actually, those are past and present motifs. It’s hard to keep track of the imagery in one’s mind’s eye.
A case in point: Suplee can no longer paint the borough’s old water tower. It was taken down more than a decade ago and, thanks to some local residents, was replaced by a community garden on West Gay Street. Still, that doesn’t mean its orb-like hovering presence won’t ever appear again in one of Suplee’s paintings. He has made it a symbol of small-town life.
A similar occurrence often happens in Suplee’s paintings depicting what Arts journalist John Chambless calls the vanishing places of Chester County. A recent major road construction project, for instance, is the subject of the painting, “Remembering Creek Road, Pocopson.” Yet it doesn’t really matter if you know the place since the work, as Suplee put it, is more about the loss of the county’s old roads and farm lanes (those “roads” farmers took to bring equipment to one part of the farm to another).
Suplee, the Concept Artist
Suplee is certainly an artist who is fixated on place, but he likes to point out that artists “serious about their work” generally use place as a starting point. As Suplee explains: “We have a joke among artists. When people say something like, ‘isn’t that the field to the west of Marshallton?’ There’s always one answer to that question: Yes!”
In past stories, I have written about Suplee’s subtle quest to document West Chester’s changing historic character, but I didn’t know until recently that he has returned to an area he calls free from “commercial clutter,” namely North High Street. Suplee grew up just off North High and remembers as a child traveling the road and seeing the former “double colonnade of plane trees worthy of many European capital” (as he said in a 2011 story of mine). As a painting subject, these trees (often mistaken for sycamores) seem ready-made for Suplee’s characteristic earth-toned palette and seemingly messy way of painting: the tree’s pale grey-green or buff colored bark often presents a time-lapse version of change, with its simultaneously smooth and exfoliating surface.
I suspect there isn’t a magnificent ancient tree in West Chester that Suplee hasn’t painted—or thought about painting—but I had forgotten that he often returns to what could be described as the “scene of the crime.” The painting he painted several years ago was titled “North High Canopy,” which suggest that there were actually more trees to create a canopy. In this latest solo show, the depiction of a solitary plane tree is underscored in the painting title, “Last of the Line.”
Much of the show at Church Street Gallery isn’t about the borough, however, but about changes that are occurring in communities throughout America. Note the “Modern Life” of the show’s title and you understand why Suplee included landscapes of city life (New Jersey and Manhattan) as well as paintings that are almost humorous in capturing what has become our Great American generic landscape.
American Life Triptych
Pointing out details as always, Suplee explains that that the three paintings comprising “American Life Triptych” depict three major aspects of modern life: “Traffic,” “Dwelling,” and “Commerce.” His words about the latter clearly express his wry outlook. “Notice this Big Box [store],”he says, “If you look around in front, you’ll notice that the parking lot doesn’t have any cars. Then you notice this sign [a dab of reddish paint] and you realize that the place is dead already!”
To return to the literary painter idea, Suplee’s artistic sensibility reminds me of that of one of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s considered the perfect “post-modernist” of the “first” Age of Anxiety after World World I, meaning that he writes in a kind of elliptical way, repeating motifs, and illusions without hammering the reader over the head with his ideas. In much of Suplee’s work, he conveys his own version of Fitzgerald’s “row boats”—that image that closes Great Gatsby and is now celebrated as the perfect ending for a novel about endings and change. (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”) It suggests a similar honing-in of an idea, yet open allusion of a Suplee painting.
“John Suplee: Perils and Pleasures of Modern Life” continues through Jan. 13. The Church Street Gallery is located at 12 S. Church St., West Chester. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Thursday 1-5 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11am-5pm.