Recollections of place

Dramatic light and idyllic atmosphere permeate the exquisite landscapes of Paula Stark.

Her perfectly balanced compositions somehow enable the viewer to transcend reality and rest in their serenity, simplicity and strength — hallmarks of the artist’s deeply personal relationship with nature.

Speaking via telephone from her home outside Portland, Ore., Stark revealed that her work reflects aims both personal and public. “Personally, I want to get my bearings, figure out where I am in nature — where I feel grounded and secure, tied to the earth,” she explains. “Publicly, I want people to see … the beauty of nature.”

Stark’s current Zone one contemporary gallery exhibit spans a decade’s worth of work — 43 landscape paintings, executed in oil on both paper and canvas. The works derive both from Stark’s imagination and from her personal explorations in the pastoral settings of New England, Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, Western North Carolina and, more recently, the Northwest. The smaller pieces show a delicate intimacy and masterly use of brushstrokes. The larger works convey a cooler attitude: The artist seems more interested in communicating the sheer scope of nature’s grandeur.

Stark begins by creating small landscape studies, rendered on location, which capture the sense of color and mood. In the studio — working from memory, imagination and photographs — she creates her larger works, whose broad brush strokes reflect Stark’s overall approach. “I’m going for the emotional impact of a scene, that strikes you right away,” she notes. “I use color, space and movement to create the mood. The mood is the crux of it.”

The success of Stark’s work lies in her magnificent evocation of nature in all its moods, and the artist selects her moments carefully: Time of day and lighting are paramount. Stark admires the dramatic light of the Dutch landscape painters — especially Jacob van Ruisdael, who also celebrated both nature’s grandeur and solitude. The landscapes of French painter George Rouault are another inspiration.

Like a drive in the country, whose beauty and serenity register only in the periphery of one’s vision, Stark’s large paintings evoke a memory of nature — dimmed, but no less immediately and peculiarly poignant, despite the blurred edges. The softness and ethereal quality of the paintings also bring to mind impressionistic pastels, as well as the abstract color-field works of such painters as Mark Rothko.

“I’m always thinking of the abstract structure inherent in a particular landscape motif,” says Stark. For example, in “Barn at the Fork,” she takes a natural phenomenon — light breaking from clouds — and uses it to brilliantly unexpected effect. All the forms are abstracted, and primary and secondary colors compress the scene into basic shapes. This dramatic light is also evident in “Gray Barn, Brown Earth” — in which a shadow of a cloud slips over a barn, leaving the rest of the vista in full sunlight.

Often, a barn, a house or a collection of houses anchors the viewer in Stark’s landscapes. “Like syncopation in music, you use architecture as the drumbeat to hold everything together, making a framework to hold in the movement of the land,” she explains.

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