Mark Lavatelli: TreeHistoric (2014)


A Feature Solo Exhibition and Catalogue

September 13–October 26, 2014

At CEPA’s Big Orbit Project Space

CEPA Gallery is pleased to announce a new exhibition of works by Mark Lavatelli entitled TreeHistoric. Lavatelli will expand on his practice by presenting a site specific installation alongside a selection of his paintings made over the past 35 years.

This exhibition and publication are funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, and many generous individuals.


Artist’s Bio

Mark Lavatelli is a Buffalo-based painter who works primarily with an antiquated beeswax technique called encaustic. This technique is rarely utilized today, which makes Lavatelli’s paintings extremely unique. In addition to having exhibited in solo and group shows all over the United States, his work in this medium has won him many different awards, grants, and commissions.


A “Sylvan Historian” in the Green, Green Rust Belt:
Some Musings on Paintings of Mark Lavatelli

By Edmund Cardoni, Executive Director, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Close your eyes. Now think about all the individual trees there are in the world, on the whole green earth or even just in our immediate “world,” the lush green ecoregion of the Eastern Great Lakes where Buffalo is blessed to be situated, where water is plentiful (albeit for part of each year in its solid or crystalline form), the growing season long and profuse, and trees—mostly deciduous and leafy (defining our immediate biome), but also evergreen—abound in number and variety and shades of green and in the shapes of their leaves and their changing colors and the arrangement of their branches and the texture of their barks. The sheer number of trees—technically finite, though it might as well be infinite (though less so than that of their leaves, or of blades of grass)—boggles the mind, even just locally (how many there are just outside this gallery, on Essex Street, on the connecting network of avenues and parkways and parks branching out across the city and stretching west to the water’s edge, how many in number and how tall). But especially in the whole wide world—despite deserts, tundras, ice caps, and oceans—the number is mind-boggling, as good as infinite. And yet we know that unknowable number is not enough. As seemingly infinitely many as there are, there are still not as many trees in the whole wide wooded world as we would wish. Amazon rainforests are razed, northwest forests deforested by clearcutting, mountaintops stripmined just a few hours’ drive to our south, woods wiped out by western wildfires. Even locally, in our recent history, towering elms and now ashes have been eradicated by diseases, and trees of all types wounded (many mortally, most reparably, in time) by unseasonable storms with their heavy snows and high winds. So not enough trees. Never enough trees.

Now think about art, or just about painting, or even just all the paintings of trees, or incidentally containing trees (i.e., wooded landscapes). Not nearly as numerous as trees in nature, maybe not even as numerous as other motifs in painting (human limbs draped and undraped, fruits of trees arranged on wooden tables, timbered dwellings and crosses and masts fashioned from trees), but still very numerous. For how many painters—from the lowly amateurs all the way up to the immortal masters—have painted trees. Not as close to infinite in number as trees themselves, but still too many to count, although not too many to have.

And yet, when I think of paintings of trees—not just here in present-day Buffalo, but in the whole wide world of paintings, past and present—I think first of the paintings of Mark Lavatelli. I think of Charles Burchfield, too, of course, and his usually lonelier, always more luminous trees, but that second thought serves as a touchstone, reinforcing my initial conviction about that signature (almost sole) subject of Lavatelli’s work. For when Lavatelli was invited to put his trees up against Burchfield’s—encaustics side-by-side with watercolors—for the exhibition Trees Interpreted: Charles Burchfield and Mark Lavatelli (Burchfield Penney Art Center, April 22–October 22, 2006), they held their own—more than held their own—with the works of the earlier master of a different medium with which they were paired. They were tested against the best, and passed the test.

Moreover, when, out in nature, or indoors looking out (through a window, say), I behold the branches of trees at a particular time of day (or year), bare or leaf-laden, backgrounded against the sky, branching out in that particular way branches do (both ordered and chaotic at once), from trunks sturdy or slender, singular and centered or grouped and parallel, arranged on a plane or receding into space, but always (to state the obvious) upright, as tree trunks, by their essential nature, always are (unless felled or windbent, the exceptions that prove the rule), I often catch myself thinking (more often than not, in fact), not just of those trees, or trees in general, or the uprightness (verticality) of their trunks, or their orderly or chaotic branching out (angularity) against the sky, or their bareness or leafiness, but of the paintings of Mark Lavatelli. Having seen so many of his paintings over his years in Buffalo, I not only recognize his signature style and subject matter, but I now see Lavatellis in the trees, in the wooded world out there. Which for me is one measure of the mastery of a painter: not only that he or she brings a distinctive (and eventually distinguishing) style to his or her chosen subject, but, by force of sustained engagement with that subject in a particular medium over time, actually imposes that distinct vision on the subject, which is to say—if the subject be trees—on nature itself. So that you (the viewer) not only come to recognize the painter’s distinctive style in the works (which art history can teach you), but to behold nature (or at least that piece of nature attended to, obsessed over by, the painter) anew, through the painter’s eyes, which only painters themselves can show you.

Now open your eyes. Let them adjust to the light of the gallery, the artificial light. (Outside above Essex Street natural daylight is fading fast, the still-leafy treetops looming against the darkening sky, perhaps lit from below by streetlamp light, or is that tinge of acid yellow the early onset of autumn?) All around you are paintings (or mostly paintings), big ones, smaller ones, some layered with collage, one with a small inkjet print of a photo inset in a little niche but otherwise two-dimensional, square or rectangular, and composed for the most part of squares and rectangles, a couple of diptychs, a 40-year-old serigraph in bright primary colors made by an artist in his twenties. To state the obvious once again (and all commentary on paintings should never do more than state the obvious, i.e., render in words what’s already apparent in the paintings for all to see), all (even that one, the 1975 serigraph, albeit that one is more abstract, or rather even more abstract than all the others, which are no less abstract than it) seem to be depictions of trees. But really what must be said (despite all the foregoing talk of trees, a worthy subject in its own right) is that the paintings are not trees at all (as Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe), but paintings. Obviously. Very masterful paintings, I would say, not for the realism of their rendering, by which some viewers (or makers) of paintings might measure mastery, but for their formal composition, surface textures, materiality, and mastery of medium. I speak not of the gathered “maple saplings” dragged in from outdoors, standing in three-dimensional space amongst us gallery goers; they and we are merely real. But speaking of sap, a very sappy but much memorized poem by a well-known but very minor poet ends—as badly as it begins—with the unjustly famous couplet “Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.” To paraphrase a more worthy (and almost as famous, but more justly so) concluding couplet from a masterpiece by a major poet—also coincidentally with the initials J.K.—who died even younger (26) than their author (Joyce Kilmer died at 31 in the Second Battle of the Marne, July 30, 1918), those lines (Kilmer’s, I mean), albeit famous, are neither beautiful nor true. Kilmer somehow manages—with false modesty and in just 15 syllables—to disparage all poems (and poets) as “foolish” while at the same time flattering himself by lumping himself in with his betters (“like me”) as playing second fiddle, yes, but only to God.

Not a believer myself (nature “makes” trees, the earth “makes” trees, trees in their death and decay “make” earth, etc., is what I believe), I also don’t hold human makers—poets and painters—in as low regard as the author of “Trees” pretends to. In fact I hold them (poets, painters, all artists in all mediums) in the highest regard of any being, even the fools, even, if pressed, fools like him. Nature might arguably be greater than art, OK, is greater than art, because artists—like all human beings—as well as all their subjects and materials, their brains and eyes and hands, come from nature, and nature is glorious and all that. Where would we be without it? But when it comes to creators, there is no creator higher than the human creator of art of any kind. An inferior poem like “Trees” may indeed be “only” a poem, and “made” by a “fool,” but a great poem like the odes of the other J.K. is a unique creation of considerable greatness (as is a great Grecian urn, say), arguably greater than any individual nightingale or “leaf-fringed” tree in nature, since trees in paintings (as in poems)…well, let J.K. (the good one) tell it himself: “nor ever can those trees be bare;… Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.”

In the artistic discipline of painting, and particularly in his signature medium of dry pigment and encaustic, Mark Lavatelli is such a master. This exhibition alludes briefly (with “Treescape” and “Deadfall Timber”) to his earliest engagement with the subject of trees long before he moved back to the Eastern Great Lakes ecoregion (he had spent part of his early education at Cornell, in the nearby Finger Lakes, but had lived in the Midwest and southwestern desert region before moving to Buffalo) before quickly catching us up with his work of this century, this decade, and this year. I’ve loved his work (and his work ethic and mastery of medium) since the beginning of his time in Buffalo. Despite being a fan of text in visual art in general (in Cubist still lifes, collages, and the like), however, I resisted his first forays into overlaying stenciled words as an added element in the compositions, along with the trunks and branches, arrangements of squares and rectangles, bands of color, and collage. At first they seemed extraneous, unnecessary. But after our recent studio visit, and his explanation of the process by which he came to choose the words, starting out with chance but ending up with carefully chosen elemental words (earth, water, fire, CO2, etc.), I have really come to appreciate them more, especially the relationship of the words not so much to nature and environment—though there is that, too, of course—but their relationship to the literal materiality of the paintings: the dry pigments he crushes into powder are chunks of colored earth, the blocks of beeswax are a solid (and a surprisingly durable one once a painting is finished) at air temperature that is liquified and mixed with the powdered pigment on a palette surface of lightbulb-heated sheet metal, solidifies instantly (much faster than pigment in wet fresco plaster, though there is a time limit on that process, too), and can be reliquified indefinitely for reworking by the deft application of other forms of “fire” (hot air from a heat gun, flame from a butane torch). The paintings with the stenciled words are made with fire of the stuff of earth and nature (mineral and animal: the pigments and the bees), depict nature more or less abstractly (mostly vegetable: the trees and, in more recent works, flowers), and refer to it linguistically, all at the same time.

But the works I love most in this show at Big Orbit, I am happy to report, are the most recent ones, whether oil on large rolled canvases or encaustic on panels, whether actual diptychs or diptych-like, whether relatively realistic (as in the ones with bright green pine brushes) or highly formalized. I love the purity of color of the new ones, especially their backgrounds (although nothing matches the red in the 1996 diptych “Haven”), the new introduction of more fragile flower petal forms amidst the gridwork of branches, the sense of locality in titles like “NY Pines,” “Hoyt Lake,” and “Griffis Pine.”

Buffalo’s abundant waterways brought industry (grain and electricity and steel), and the decline of industry left the rust (iron + water + air) by which we are now known, but rust is also a pigment, and Buffalo is also ever green, and we see in this show how fortunate we are to have industrious and rust-inspired artists like this master of earthen pigments, heat-softened surfaces, air-cooled solidity, and sylvan abstraction.

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