He once said, “had I been born in New York, I’d probably be painting taxis—I’m sure I would be.” Who would associate that statement with 66-year-old Jamie Wyeth, heir to the Wyeth artistic tradition—“everybody in my family paints—excluding possibly the dogs.” But James (Jamie) Browning Wyeth, son of Andrew Wyeth (d. 2009) and grandson of N.C. Wyeth, has not only been carrying on that tradition, capturing in meticulously painted moody beauty the animals and humans of Chadds Ford (PA) and Monhegan (ME), but extending that tradition by also embracing subjects and a mix of media all his own. Particularly fascinating are exhibits of his work that feature Andrew and N.C.s paintings as well, showing how Jamie is both like and unlike his famous forbears in interpreting the American vision.
Later this year, East End admirers will have a chance to see Jamie’s work again when gallery owner Peter Marcelle dips into his Wyeth collection and contacts to mount a Jamie Wyeth exhibit in his new, airy Bridgehampton space on Main Street. Meanwhile, Wyeth lovers will have to content themselves with what Marcelle has on hand. This includes two compelling bird paintings, a detail from one of which—”Strawberry Shortcake” (2004)—appeared on the November 16, 2012 cover of Dan’s (the shortcake cropped out). The other painting, “Kestrel” (1985), part of an ornithological series, is on consignment from Adelson Galleries on Park Avenue (Warren Adelson and Peter Marcelle worked together for several years at the Coe Kerr Gallery).
Marcelle, who is director of the Gerald Peters Gallery on E. 78th Street, has a long personal and professional association with the Wyeth family and a keen sense of the artistic differences among the generations. Jamie’s work, he points out, is more like his grandfather’s than his father’s, particularly because Jamie mainly embraces oil, as did N.C., while Andrew’s preferred medium was tempera. Jamie’s portraits—especially of Warhol, JFK and Shorty (an unshaven railroad worker)—also evidence a more expressive take on portraiture than his father’s and seem to capture subjects at a particular moment in time rather than in a timeless, traditional pose for eternity. In this sense, the bird paintings can be said to be distinctively Jamie’s.
“Kestrel” exemplifies Jamie’s impressionistic style and apparent penchant for unusual compositions. The kestrel, a member of the falcon family, and a hunting bird, is seen here in profile, perched on a ledge, quietly posed against sun-flecked stormy water and sky. The view is through a brown wood window frame which is angled a degree or two up from a white foam, mid-canvas horizon line. The frame also extends to a slightly billowing embroidered curtain stained at the top with an unresolved brown drip mark. The whole suggests a scene of stasis and motion, a deliberate play of inside and outside, an appropriate ambiguity perhaps for this bird of prey…at rest.
By contrast, “Strawberry Shortcake” (2004) shows heightened color, bolder and more various than the monochromatic earth-toned palette associated with Andrew Wyeth’s iconic landscapes. A viewer looks at the gulls but also up at gull bodies and tails beating overhead. Ornithologist Richard Harris Polodsky writes in Gulls, Ravens and a Vulture: The Ornithological Paintings of Jamie Wyeth (2005) that gulls, the “ultimate avian pirates,” known for “securing food by any means,” are captured here in “full voracious mode.” But the moment is before the attack. The shortcake, a “seasonal Maine delicacy,” sits meltingly on a slightly tilted gold plate, a disorienting, oddly humorous touch—are we indoors or out? The birds don’t even look at their prize. Open beaked, they squawk competitively, confident, textured white individuals. The energy is in the pigment. Marcelle and Adelson note that Jamie sometimes “smears paint with his fingers, rubbing the canvas with pigment, and splashing it and flicking it with a brush. He scratches and marks the surface with the palette knife and brush handle to punctuate gesture and accentuate form,” stylistic effects that are “different from the more traditional work of his earlier years and different from his father’s approach.”
Those who criticize Jamie Wyeth (and his father and grandfather) as out of the mainstream could not be more superficial in their perception, or judgment. Jamie Wyeth is primarily a portrait artist, whether of people or animals, but nothing is seen straight on, at photographic eye-level or in conventional or time-honored contexts. His is a complex realism, strong, surprising, regionally based and distinctively American.
Peter Marcelle Gallery is located at 2411 Main Street in Bridgehampton, 631-613-6170, PeterMarcelleGallery.com