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Domestic Bliss

Philip Geiger contemplates the commonplace


The domestic interior has long been an honored subject of paintings: Just think of the deliciously poignant work of the Dutch master Jan Vermeer. Something of this lustrous quality of commonplace events bathed in glorious light can be found in Philip Geiger's New Paintings on view at Hidell Brooks Gallery through June 15, 2002.

Geiger paints genre paintings, interiors of his own 80-year-old house in Charlottesville, VA, where the spare and graceful rooms serve as settings for the everyday endeavors of the people who inhabit them.

The people, young adults and children, are engaged in activities that lend the paintings "narrative" content, but theirs is an indirect narrative, and not confrontational like some of the New Imagery of the early 1980s -- for example, the canvasses of Eric Fischl, which imply impending doom or something creepy happening around their Blue Velvety edges. Here, in Geiger's domestic settings, there's no such feeling of crisis or discontent. In contrast to the adolescent undercurrent of frenzy so common in the work of Fischl -- or David Salle -- Geiger's work is benign. It's neither passive nor absolutely stable in the manner of many classic interiors.

Geiger's luminous oil compositions on Masonite may take a month to complete; the final result reflects changes over time. Perhaps this ability of not "locking-in" to a composition is what keeps this suite of paintings at Hidell Brooks Gallery so fresh and fluid. It's pleasing to note that Geiger doesn't use a camera to "capture" a moment or "freeze" a pose; the work breathes in a way that so much camera-assisted painting cannot.

Instead, the painter requires his models to make a number of "sittings" to yield the desired result.

Actually, "sitting" is a bit of a misnomer: The subjects in Geiger's lustrously illuminated interiors are not fixed in time, but poised -- temporarily resting or caught at the moment before or after motion, seeming to alight in places that are halfway. In flux. Geiger's paintings illuminate human events as they evolve, thus aiding the narrative quality. As the Gallery states, the artist recognizes "those inevitable pauses that occur in the midst of life's activities."

Rather than the captured moment, Geiger's paintings illuminate the considered moment. Contrary to David Hockney's latest theory that a preponderance of painters of the present, recent past and distant past use and have used cameras or lenses to compose, Geiger's work implies no sense of a lens entering into the process of creation. Geiger likes to "stay close to direct observation..." He uses living models, and the work is free of the flattened perspective so often reproduced in photo-assisted paintings.

Like Edward Hopper, he contemplates the commonplace. And while Geiger doesn't handle paint like Hopper, and he renders more personalized faces than those of that mid-century American master, his people have a presence such as Hopper's do -- but without the loneliness or alienation.

On occasion, Geiger's protagonists engage the viewer by looking out of the paintings. This is more like another American painter, John Singer Sargent, and though Geiger is not as lush a paint handler as that great master, there are echoes of Sargent's painting of a lanky "Robert Louis Stevenson" (1885) gazing out as he casually inhabits an interior space that resonate in Geiger's own peopled rooms, especially where a person looks toward the viewer.

Over his 20 or so years as a teacher at UVA, Geiger's oeuvre has included still life, figure painting, interior and landscape subject matter; now, in a painting such as "January," the painter utilizes all modes in a harmonious manner. The loosely painted figure sleeps in an interior with pale gray-violet walls, and through the open windows a muted lavender-toned landscape of buildings is revealed.

An open airy room is the setting for "Daffodils," an informal portrait of a young woman in red sitting across from a vase of full-blown yellow flowers. She is contemplative, pausing over a partially consumed glass of amber liquid and melting ice. Daylight reflects off plaster walls and the rich, burnished tones of a wood floor, and a sense of deep space is visible through a series of open windows and doorways.

In "11 am," a dog sleeps on a richly glowing sienna colored floor. Easy chairs, a table cloth on the dining room table, and other symbols of domestic comfort contribute to a feeling that is redolent of Vermeer, but this painting is definitely of its own time, and by its own maker. A similar dynamic between past and present informs the richly colored "Table," where a man wearing a bright yellow jacket muses beside an invitingly set dining table.

Geiger uses a full palette and spectrum, and his brushstrokes are well-conceived. The casual pose of a woman in "Summer" has the freedom of a gesture drawing, and when observed close up, the brushstroke is loose and luscious. But when viewed from a distance, subjects, shadows and reflections become crisp and lucid, revealing the ordinary with extraordinary clarity.

Other reviewers have perceived Philip Geiger's people as being alienated, making it clear just how differently viewers see paintings. To me, the work is imbued with a pleasant and rare quiet. The people relate to each other, and to the viewer, but casually, with a quiet animation. These excellent paintings are windows into a life appearing simple but richly portrayed.

Hidell Brooks Gallery is located at "SouthEnd Steelyard" at 1910 South Boulevard, Suite 130. For more info, email or call 334-7320. *

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