L. O. Griffith – Painting Wilderness of Western Texas

Valley House Gallery is currently holding the second monograph exhibition on Louis Oscar Griffith (Jan 10, 2011 to Feb 5, 2011) with a reception this past Saturday, Jan 15.

Unlike the first exhibition which focused on the artist’s painstaking effort of printmaking including etching and color aquatint, the current  exhibition features mostly oil sketches during his trips to Western Texas between 1901 and 1909, and other Texas scenery from trips in other periods. Many of paintings came from the descendants of Griffith, who found less of a market for them in Ohio. Yet those Texas plein-air jewels prove to be irresistible to Dallas collectors, and the crowd at reception night turned out to be informed and enthusiastic. Regional pride brings these forgotten works into the Dallas spotlight.

The influence of Frank Reaugh was evident in many small oil sketches. Griffith not only adopted Reaugh’s favorite dimension (roughly 4 by 8 inches) which could fit perfectly in Reaugh’s own frames, but also opted for a similar color pallet that emphasized the freshness of each color while limiting the range of tonality.

The Top: Frank Reaugh, offered by Dallas Fine Art Auction, the bottom: L. O. Griffith
The Top: Frank Reaugh, offered by Dallas Fine Art Auction, the bottom: L. O. Griffith

Although Griffith commonly used a thin layer of purple to indicate the mountains in the furthest background, his brush strokes became loose and playful for some foreground. The dashes of green and thick or thin branches create an instantaneous intimacy as if these paint texture are meant to be felt more than seen.

The coherence of those small oil sketches hanging side by side makes a great presentation of his compositional formula, color schema and painting techniques. Yet after a while, I began to feel the bordom, not of his own fault. The most picturesque part of Western Texas, in its most untouched wilderness, loses its asset of expansiveness within these small pictures. The raw lonesomeness is reduced into dots of steers. The virtuosity and persistence is evident and the hardship against all natural animosity can be imagined. But a New Yorker may simply ask: Why bother?

Although Geo is not fond of his rendering of the sun in some medium-sized paintings, he is particularly interested in “West Texas Moonrise” painting, which captures the fleeting moment of dark cloud blanking in with a rising moon while most of the sky is still illuminated in pale blue by the setting sun. The focus on the different bands of colors is seen in some paintings, as dictated by the relative flatness of West Texas topology; yet what distinguishes this one is the subtle transition of the color temperature. The band of blue mountains looks unsurpassable and remote so that there seems a century between the midground trees and the mountains. And above that there it is: the mysterious moon that gives one chills.Moon Rise by L. O. Griffth

The painting of San Antonio canal is probably from his 1920’s trip. It is one of the rare urban scenes shown in the gallery. The colors are more refreshing and cheerful with the contrast between red and green, yet in such a beautiful, near-assertive scenery, no human being is visible. Was it too hot when he painted the scene? For me, after seeing all that open space of Western Texas frontier, a humanized urban scene without humans has the same lonesomeness, regardless how crisp clear the sky is.

The painting with a center figure also won Geo’s attention. “Round-up” lightens up the life style at the frontier. Geo commented finally there was some activity! Instead of cows being interspersed like wild flowers against the vanishing horizon, the dashing of the cow takes the pounding and huff into the otherwise endless quietitude. Reaugh was famous for using photographs as studies for his paintings. Is this small sketch based on Griffith’s own photograph captured on a road trip?

San Antonio Canal by L. O. Griffith
San Antonio Canal by L. O. Griffith

On the way home, Geo said the grandeur and eternity of American landscape have been explored by painters in the north east by the end of the 19th century. Looking at Griffith’s paintings, even when the scenes depicted have no discernible actions, it always seems that the dominating force is the wind, which eventually blows everything away. When western painters find the actions of cowboys that epitomize the vitality of Texas culture, Griffith chose to paint the nature, in the vain of quest and conquer against the expansiveness: the nature returns year by year, as did the painter.

Round-up by L. O. Griffith



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