The late, great landscape painter Ray Strong, who died in 2006 at age 101, returns with an engrossing show at Solvang’s Wildling Museum of Nature & Art.
“Ray Strong: A Collector’s Passion”
When: through July 8
Where: Wildling Art Museum, 1511-B Mission Dr. in Solvang
Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (closed Tuesday), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Information: 688-8315, www.wildlingmuseum.org
Famed landscape painter Ray Strong passed on in 2006, still active at the ripened at the 101, but in some ways, it’s like he never left. We still find solace in his large diorama paintings at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History—the job which brought the Oregon native down from Northern California to Santa Barbara in 1960—and various exhibitions keep his art in view, posthumously. He was given a major show at Sullivan Goss (with an ambitious, published book attached), and now shows up in an engrossing exhibition in Solvang’s Wildling Museum of Art & Nature.
Apart from the power and subtlety of the Strong approach to nature paintings, he left deep impressions and influences on Santa Barbara’s art life. He co-founded the potent Oak Group of plein air/landscape painters with painter Arturo Tello more than 30 years ago, and in effect, helped plan the seeds for what has become a major contingent of landscape painting in our area. Underlying and in close tandem with his driving artistic impulse was a passion for nature, and a passion for helping to both make people aware of the natural beauty around them and help in some way to prevent the despoliation of development of those unspoiled spaces he captured on canvas.
Given those connected passions, it makes perfect sense and feels like poetic logic to find 32 examples of his work liberally gracing the walls of the Wildling, the county’s art space dedicated to the juncture where “art and nature” meet. In this case, the body of work, under the exhibition title “Ray Strong: A Collector’s Passion,” comes from the collection of Santa Ynez-born and Goleta-based David Parker, who has noted that “there’s something spiritual about Ray’s painting that is hard to explain… each time I look at a Ray Strong painting, ai feel a greater connection to the land and all the forces that formed it.”
From the artist’s own perspective, Mr. Strong offered a simple mantra: “to paint is to affirm.”
Deborah Veldkamp’s portrait of the artist in his wise, seasoned years makes for a telling frontispiece to the show. Many of the paintings in this show, with art spanning from his pre-Santa Barbara era of the ‘40s and ‘50s through the ‘90s, lean towards rolling, undulant hillscapes of California, of both the green and arid brown (aka “golden”) sort. We find that kind of visual rhythmic quality alive in canvases ranging from the late ‘40s “Marin Hill in the Spring” through the ‘50s-vinrage “Portola Canyon” and 1990’s “Golden Hills.” Gently hilly terrain was a recurring motif and magnet for the artist.
From higher, wetter altitudes, we can also appreciate “San Jacinto Mountain,” from the early ‘70s, and its artful lavishing in a stark, snowy terrain.
Local colors in his mix of topography and periods naturally grab our Santa Barbara County-partial eye in a special way. “Lifting Clouds, San Marcos Pass” has a regional resonance, wedded to a slightly mystical view, hanging across from the sensuous hilly etude of “Santa Ynez Range”–a timeless scene readily visible on the drive to Solvang from Santa Barbara. By contrast, the dipping “golden” land chasm in the painting “Hollister Ranch” is a scene made all the more tantalizing by the strange and currently contested exclusivity of that coastal ranch property, presently off-limits to outsiders and plebeians.
Mr. Strong pulls back and offers a more sweeping overview perspective in “Summerland Coast,” taking in the junction of land and sea in its horizontally-pitched panoramic view.
With these familiar local views, we can be easily seduced into patterns of recognition, home team pride and acknowledgement of the painter’s romanticizing eye on our known natural magnificence. But the artist’s expressive virtues and painterly “voice” also transcends matters of specific sites, important as those are. He deftly, and intuitively, understood how to liven up a canvas by combining rustic realism with doses of impressionistic suggestion and balancing acts of palette, light, land, and the subjective artist’s eye.
In his early ‘50s painting “Hay Field,” for instance, a country church and tree-blanketed hills frame the upper half of the composition, while the “hay field” component is subject to wild swirls and whorls of action painting, as if tickled by questions of “what would Monet or Van Gogh do here?”
What Strong did here, and elsewhere in this show’s cavalcade of natural artistic splendor, circles back to his own mantra: it affirms, on multiple levels. Long live Ray Strong.