Durham and Foss Shows Spark Crosstown Parallels

Simultaneous exhibitions of Bill Durham and Cornelia Foss
Bill Durham’s “Another Time, Another Place,” from 1988, is one of his abstract images that gathers into a seemingly recognizable form. Scott Bluedorn

The simultaneous exhibitions of Bill Durham and Cornelia Foss are at opposite ends of the South Fork and were certainly mounted independently of each other through separate and distinct impulses. Yet, in seeing both within a day of each other, it was possible to find intriguing parallels between them.

Ms. Foss is alive and well and still painting forceful pictures in her 80s. Mr. Durham died of cancer in 2011, only reaching his mid-70s. His retrospective is at the Jackson Carriage House at the Amagansett Historical Society, where some paintings literally hang from the rafters. Ms. Foss’s exhibition is being presented at the Peter Marcelle Project in Southampton, a pretty white space with a light-filled western exposure. The carriage house has only a barn door. Natural light appears to be a reticent guest at the barn, hanging back at the doorway.

Both settings suit the artwork however. Scott Bluedorn, who organized the Durham show and will present a series of shows at the carriage house this summer, has lighted the show with sensitivity and an eye to bringing the darker corners of the space out of their shadows. In the Marcelle space, the lights are spare, placed with an understanding that the afternoon hours provide a bath of natural light that befits the paintings, many of which seem as though they were painted en plein air.

Ms. Foss has a varied palette that captured the dark heart of last winter with the same intensity as the warm and vivid blues she used to paint the beaches at Bridgehampton last summer. Her recent work seesaws between gestural figurative landscapes and floral compositions and more expressionist depictions of the same subject matter. Her abstracted painting of waves has the roughness of pastel.

The majority of works are landscapes and mostly of the beach. What is compelling is how each one is so very different in mood, tone, and hue. Skies glow uniformly or are multilayered in clouds of varying darknesses or pretty pinks.

Durham, who lived on Main Street in Amagansett for many years, is being exhibited mere yards from there. Covering his career from the 1960s to his latest works, there is even more variety in the styles on display here than in Ms. Foss’s show.

A spirit of play and adventure lives in his canvases. In the 1960s he began a period of experimentation, inspired by Roy Lichtenstein, using dots and then tracking the fellow artist’s more linear phases. These are not mere copies but interpretations, as if he needed to work through those ideas and find some meaning in them. He continued through the early 1970s in this vein and then moved on to a more painterly approach.

In the late 1980s, he turned to larger canvases and experimented with paint application, yielding abstract imagery that still hinted at something real. Two works from this period line the entrance to the barn and they both are attention grabbers. “Another Time, Another Place,” from 1988, and “Journey,” from 1989, seem to refer to more idyllic settings, but ones that may not exist. Even as memory may convey the density of a rain forest, the acrylic applied here implies only fleeting senses of things and a loss of any solid grasp of location.

In considering his “Another Time, Another Place” alongside her “Magnolias,” it is the differences that are instructive. His acrylic painting in various thicknesses and application methods is an abstraction that gathers in a way that ultimately resembles a tropical flower. “Magnolias” has an obvious figural reference in both title and form, but her treatment of the blossoms in oil results in gathered bursts of pink and white, given structure by the branches, and offset by peeks of cobalt blue sky. The mind begins to question what it is seeing and drifts away in its own abstracted reverie. If each were a pair of fireworks, his would be a single starburst and hers would be a roman candle.

Durham spent a good portion of his career painting the figure, and this retrospective has a few examples, but none of his political works of the 1980s. The female forms on view are abstractions. There is a reclining nude rendered primarily in black dots on a white canvas background from the 1960s and what could be a Willem de Kooning and Tom Wesselman hybrid from 2005. The show’s emphasis on abstractions, particularly those inspired by landscape, makes it more friendly to overtures from the Foss presentation, which includes paintings solely inspired by the local environs.

Durham’s “Summer Squall,” from 1971, offers a few takes on a storm, like a filmstrip, in separate frames on a single canvas. In all three he contrasts the linear sea with the abstract atmosphere of the sky by presenting the water’s ripples in rows, the way a neatly plowed and planted farm field would be depicted. His weather is about movement and a certain violence. His clouds blossom into menacing forms in skies highlighted in reds and magentas. Ms. Foss’s dark skies are moody and deliberative. There may be a storm gathering in some, but it is still off in the distance. The only one that might be feared, in an untitled work from 2014, is manageably contained in its 16-inch-square canvas.

The artists share a somber and darker side. In untitled works, hers from this year and his from 2008 (not long after his diagnosis of cancer, according to Mr. Bluedorn), they use darkness over a wooded landscape to great effect. His shows a moonless sky over water lined with dense foliage. The painting offers a way in through the open stream in the foreground, but as it narrows toward the background, the viewer can sense a trap. In Ms. Foss’s painting the trees form a scrim in the foreground, standing sentry on snow-covered land and offering only a treacherous course back to the warm glow of a house, implied by shards of glowing light but not seen. Her painting is an apt metaphor for the seasons, just as Mr. Durham’s is one for disease.

Both shows are on view through the weekend.

Cornelia Foss’s “Magnolia,” from this year, comes from a realist impulse but blurs into abstraction. Peter Marcelle Gallery
"Wild Waves" from 2012 and an untitled work from this year by Cornelia Foss
Durham's untitled work from 2008 has a similar sense of foreboding as Foss's untitled work above.
An installation view of several Durham works on paper
"Bridgehampton Beach" from 2014