Among the best of Tacoma's art galleries, the Fulcrum Gallery rarely hosts a disappointing show. The current offering, “Science and Industry,” is another hit. The show consists of a series of oil paintings by Centralia-based artist Peter Scheesley. Working from photographs taken at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, Scheesley uses his oils to explore the variations of light found within the spaces of the gigantic museum. Despite the off-putting title and the dry-sounding subject matter, this show fascinates on a number of levels.
Bearer of a Masters in Fine Arts in figurative painting from the New York Academy of Art, Scheesley is very much in charge of his medium. His buttery, velvety surfaces are dramatic. Illuminated museum displays stand out from amid shadowy surroundings that are inhabited by mute and frumpy museum-goers.
Inspired by the experience of standing in the dark and mysterious Chartres Cathedral in France, where the patterns of light flowing through the stained glass windows had a memorable impact, Scheesley set out to capture a similar experience found in the vast spaces of the Chicago museum that was familiar to him from his childhood (he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago).
The cavernous spaces within the museum are transformed by Scheesley into a cathedral of science. Various illuminated displays feature scientific objects like holy relics in illuminated glass cases.
Both stylistically and in his adherence to painting subject matter from everyday experience Scheesley is akin to 19th century realist painters like Gustave Courbet of France and Thomas Eakins, the great American painter. There is also, however, a quiet and lonely quality to the scenes that are reminiscent of the work of Edward Hopper.
In “Ship,” a silent figure stands behind a glass case that contains a model of an old time sailing ship. The ship is illuminated from above. The ship's sails are done with a series of deft strokes in various tones of white paint.
“Crowd” depicts people unselfconsciously milling about beneath the vast rotunda of the museum's lobby. Scheesley boosts the highlights on the figures giving them an El Greco like quality.
“Airplane” is dominated by the huge orb of a head-on view of a jet plane. Each reflection on its glossy surface is carefully rendered by Scheesley's brush. In the background, specimens of antique airplanes are suspended from the ceiling.
“Looking” is a wonderfully intimate scene in which two boys stand on tiptoe to peer through ornate openings in some kind of Victorian diorama. This smaller work is the one that is most reminiscent of something by Eakins.
“The Tube” shows a somewhat rotund figure contemplating a large tube that glows like a holy object. The tube- a bit of space junk perhaps- is housed in a kind of glass corral. This object that would be unworthy of notice in any other context is here made an object of devotion by virtue of its placement in the museum space and for the story it has to tell in that venue.
Converted to figure painting by an encounter with the work of Lucian Freud, Scheesley has devoted himself to oil painting. In addition to his various series of paintings (of which “Science and Industry” is the most recent) Scheesley also gets work by painting portraits of pets and people. In his literature he lists interests in long-distance running, watching TV, astronomy, Tae KwanDo, knitting and chess. He is evidently a well rounded artist living comfortably in his Centralia sanctuary.
“Science and Industry” runs through Aug.13 at Fulcrum Gallery. For further information visit www.fulcrumtacoma.com or call (253) 250-0520. For information on Scheesley visit his website at www.petersheesley.com.