The pale yellow walls of the White River Gallery provide a bright backdrop for ‘Fully Involved: Bunny Harvey Paintings’, an exhibition of 17 works by the Tunbridge artist. Harvey filled the 500 square foot room with five large scale oil paintings on canvas, eight 12 square inch oil paintings on panels and four framed archival inkjet prints. The thrum of a Vermont summer is almost palpable in his work here.
Curator Dian Parker says the show’s title is reminiscent of cartoonist Ed Koren, a good friend of Harvey’s, who once described his approach to his work as “fully involved”. A member of the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department for 27 years, Koren noted that the phrase refers to when a structure is completely engulfed in flames. It also reflects that Harvey’s latest work is her most fearless, as she pushes the sensory dimensions further than ever before. His recent work is, figuratively speaking, “on fire”.
In his latest painting, “Scented August” – at 66 square inches, also the largest on display – Harvey seems to be exploring all the senses. While only the visual can be rendered in two dimensions, the oil on canvas work takes us out into the field, evoking the hum and buzz of insects, the hum of farm machinery, the smell of freshly mown hay and manure, and the feeling of the wind blowing on the skin. Made almost palpable of these sensations, “Scented August” alone justifies a visit to the White River Gallery.
Harvey spent most of his childhood in Vermont, so nature is imprinted in his artistic DNA. Since the 1970s, she has lived in a 1792 farmhouse in Tunbridge, dividing her studio time between there and Providence, RI (and, occasionally, Rome and New York). Harvey identifies and studies native plants on his Vermont property and searches for wild edibles in the field. She paints in a large barn studio on a hill behind her house, opening its massive doors to the elements whenever she can.
Harvey’s semi-abstract paintings take the viewer on the same visual journey as the artist, whether gazing through those open barn doors in Tunbridge, strolling through fields or a pond. Although this exhibition does not capture the full extent of Harvey’s prolific output, it does capture summer on canvas. In one work, the wind pushes a sea of tall grass in a crescendo of waves; in another, blackberries ripen on wild vines; elsewhere, insects seek out a sweet scent that seems to rise from the web.
“Thirty years ago, when my work consisted mostly of abstract explorations of archaeological themes, I began a serious lay study of particle physics,” Harvey said in a statement about his work. “Surprisingly enough, the attempt to understand subatomic space and time – particularly the relationship between the observer and the observed – led me back to one of the oldest artistic impulses: landscape painting and drawing. .”
Harvey’s fascination with the subatomic creates an interesting challenge. His paintings seem expectant, as if waiting for nature’s next surprise – a darting hummingbird or a leaping fish, as in the 36 x 66 inch oil “Waiting for Dragonflies”. Here, time is a continuum. In “Dragonflies”, Harvey uses an arc line to trace where a fish or frog jumped out of the water and disappeared into it. His gestural brushstrokes indicate movement and suggest the passage of time. Harvey paints several images of a dragonfly hovering just above the waterline of a pond, its brushstrokes indicating where it flew from and where it will go next. She connects the past to the future while painting the present.
Using rectangles and other geometric shapes, Harvey aims to draw the viewer’s attention to particular areas of his paintings. In “Wind Frame” (66 by 54 inches, oil on canvas), a series of rectangles frame our view, drawing us deeper into the painting. Here, one has the impression of being tossed about by the wind and getting lost.
Harvey plays with this feeling of getting lost, creating landscapes devoid of people that provide a place for daydreaming. The title “Wind Frame” plays with the notion of capturing the wind and offering a window on nature. These geometric shapes also evoke portals to Harvey’s world, where we can share his special relationship with the landscape.
The exhibit also includes four framed archival inkjet prints, which are beautiful but lack the power and depth of the originals. In the original oil version of “Wood Thrush” (66 square inches, not visible), for example, the blood-red carpet propels us into a forest, but these color values are not well distinguished in the printed version. Reducing the size to a 22 inch square framed print also reduces the depth of field.
The most successful prints here are “Duet: Hidden Dwellings” and “Luminaries”. The more abstract landscape of “Duet” translates well even at one-third scale; it helps that the diptych offers more viewing area. “Luminaries”, a 29 x 21.25 inch charcoal and black pastel on paper, has a commanding simplicity of palette.
The eight oil paintings on 12-inch-square-panel are alluring, with vivid colors and a greater sense of surrender through abstraction. Unfortunately, the grouping does not work as a whole and seems out of step with the other works presented. Given Harvey’s heightened senses, perhaps she chose these works to express greater variety and an interest in continued experimentation.
For years, she has been creating these little panels like a catalog of ideas that evoke a certain playfulness. If the grouping is not so convincing, the individual paintings are uninhibited and sometimes exuberant. Harvey, who recently celebrated 39 years of teaching at Wellesley College, seems to be moving forward with the sensibility they embody.
“Fully Involved” is a wonderful insight into Harvey’s long career. The Davis Museum in Wellesley gave her the full treatment last fall with “Bunny Harvey: Four Decades,” a major retrospective of her work and legacy as an educator and mentor.
Harvey’s career began with a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Fine Arts in Painting and a Master’s in Teaching from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1974, the American Academy awarded him the Rome Prize, awarded annually to a select group of artists and scholars. When she returned to the United States after her intensive two-year residency in Rome, in 1976, Harvey began teaching at Wellesley. Her innate curiosity led her to study particle physics, explore the Egyptian desert, and develop a fascination with artifacts from ancient civilizations, all of which influence her work to this day.
After 40 years of painting, Harvey still takes on intellectual challenges and is fully committed to meeting them with visual solutions.