African-American Realism at Sag Harbor's Grenning Gallery

A world similar to but more diverse than the traditional artistic mainstream
Philip Smallwood’s “Tension” is part of a series of detailed and perceptive studies of subjects in their environments at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor.

It’s hard not to view the Grenning Gallery’s current exhibition, “Expanding Tradition: The Journey of the African-American Artist‚" outside the context of the recently closed Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective on Kerry James Marshall. 

For years, Mr. Marshall has been working both conceptually and with realism to provide an inclusionary view of history and art. The Grenning walls feel alive with a similar energy, with classically trained artists doing what they always do, painting portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, but through a personal lens that reproduces a world similar to but more diverse than the traditional artistic mainstream.

Regular followers of the gallery will recognize Mario Robinson, whose watercolors capture the spirit of European Old Masters and American realists. The paintings are primarily of buildings and landscapes, but a few portraits reveal a sensitive handling of personality, casting light upon the subjects’ inner life along with their physical presence. 

The landscapes here are light-filled. The artist seems attracted to white-painted buildings: churches, Coast Guard stations, a beach bulletin board. Even when there are clouds, the rays of sunlight that peek through rake the buildings in a soft glow. Such subtle gradations of light in watercolor must certainly be difficult to achieve, but Mr. Robinson does so masterfully. It is no wonder his works take up much of the space in the gallery.

Philip Smallwood paints “Lifes­capes,” detailed and perceptive studies of people going about their daily routines, ignored by passersby, much in the spirit of predecessors such as Caravaggio, who preferred using people he encountered on the streets to stand in for saints and the Virgin Mary. The detail and emotional resonance in his paintings, also in watercolor, is remarkable. These are people alive in their surroundings, whether a man in jeans and T-shirt standing in front of a display window of colorful soda bottles, or a young girl and her grandmother in a park-like setting. 

There’s not much sentimentality in Mr. Smallwood’s work. The expressions are frank and real. Despite the arm she drapes around her granddaughter, the grandmother looks downward. She seems tired. The guy in front of the store is looking off at something and doesn’t seem pleased with what he sees. These paintings tell stories with an economy of information, which does not make them any less compelling.

Also returning to the gallery is Jas Knight, who lives in Brooklyn. His “Profile of a Woman” evokes Renaissance bust portraiture in a thoroughly modern way. The treatment is classical but the attitude contemporary, and the treatment of light, provided by an overhead source slightly behind the subject, and the resulting shadows, is masterful. 

He has several other studies of women in the show, all in oil on various supports. In “Elegy for Ethan,” the subject’s face is bathed in bright light, yet the mood is somber. The subject looks stricken and melancholic, like someone in deep mourning.

Roger Beckles, who was born in Barbados, distinguishes himself with a bravura self-portrait through a round mirror. There are also two brightly hued still lifes, one classically inspired with vegetables and an oil cruet, and another, “Still Life Portrait,” with a number of articles of contemporary clothing scattered on and around a chair.

George Morton has only one work in the show, a charcoal drawing called “Mars,” but it is one of the most penetrating and insightful portraits on view. It is stunning how much life he is able to coax out of such a dull medium. The skin looks luminous and the eyes alive.

James Hoston of Freeport and Irvin Rodriguez of the Bronx round out the show. Mr. Hoston references historical narrative painting with his “Adam and Eve in Brooklyn.” Complete with a rather large serpent, the biblical tale seems to be at the point where modesty begins but paradise is not yet completely lost. The subject matter may be classical, but the figures look plucked from last week’s anatomy-drawing class. The tension caused by the anachronism lends a lush but uneasy energy. Also unusual is that the painting is actually a diptych, with the side featuring Eve painted on linen and the side with Adam painted on a wood panel.

Mr. Rodriguez contributes two portraits of subjects whose faces are partially or mostly hidden. In “Doppelganger,” he has taken the portraitist’s mirror challenge a step further by replicating his subject not as a reflection, but a recapturing of the form from a different angle. The rectangular patches on the subject’s dress seem to underline a reference to Cubism’s aim to capture multiple viewpoints at once. Here, Mr. Rodriguez has tackled the issue without escaping a naturalistic approach. 

The exhibition is open through March 5.