Lawrence native Jeff Epstein has been creating art since he was a youngster—all kinds of art.
“I first thought I’d be a graphic designer,” he says, “then a sculptor, then a printmaker. Then when I took painting, I decided I was a painter and never questioned it again.”
An exhibit of 21 of his paintings is now on display in the Gallery at Chapin.
Epstein, who teaches at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, now lives in Brooklyn and, during college breaks, in his second home in mid-coast Maine, where he spent 18 summers painting.
“I still think of myself as a suburban painter, not really interested in cityscapes or pure landscape either, but rather, where the natural and man-made worlds overlap,” Epstein says. “I think that the sort of spaces I’m drawn to have something to do with growing up in suburban New Jersey, not far off vistas usually, but more in the middle distance, like what you’d encounter standing in someone’s backyard.”
Backyards are what you will see in the Chapin exhibit — gardens with birdfeeders, a flowering bush with a hose nearby, an attic window and even the view seen through a narrow space between two shingled buildings.
Most of the paintings, on view through the courtesy of the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Maine, were done during the sabbatical Suffolk County Community College awarded him last semester.
“It was wonderful to wake up thinking about painting and feel that I could just follow that thought throughout the day, then the next day, and the one after that,” he says.
Looking back now, he remembers that same pace during the year he spent in Florence, Italy, at the invitation of one of his professors at Moravian College. He went out drawing every day and spent afternoons “in the Uffizi (Museum) revisiting paintings I came to love. Of course seeing all that great art helped inform my eye.”
The paintings at Chapin are those of a well-trained eye and a well-developed artistic sense. Epstein says he paints on site and sometimes uses those paintings as studies for larger versions done in the studio.
In the statement that accompanies the exhibit, he says his paintings “explore the intersection of natural and man-made landscapes. There are indications of human presence yet no actual figures are included. …There exists a nuanced space where moments of natural beauty are interrupted by man-made intrusions, where disruption and harmony are both possible and the ordinary and sublime coexist, sometimes uneasily. It is that balance that I want to describe.”
He does it well. Note especially “Wires,” which is a view looking upward at utility wires crisscrossing beneath leaves and a lovely blue sky. The painting offers the freedom of space while, at the same time, it bars entry.
“Dirt Pile, Puddles and Bleachers” mar what was probably once an open field. “Attic Window – Spring” shows a pair of yellow flycatchers covered with dead flies dangling in a window that looks out over a bucolic farm scene. Natural beauty interrupted by a man-made intrusion, with the ordinary and the sublime coexisting uneasily.
However, in “Thistle Feeder,” the shiny yellow-capped feeder looks relatively harmonious suspended at the far edge of a peaceful backyard. The balance is not as disturbing in that scene as it is in “My Feeder and Richard’s Log Truck,” where outbuildings obliterate what you know must be a nice landscape beyond.
Epstein says he uses photographs for reference on occasion. “I’m usually happier with the decisions I make when I’m in the moment and under the influence of the location — even at night. Flailing away in the dark, you give up some control, but often your intuition more than compensates for the loss. Besides, you can have some interesting surprises when you finally see the painting under a bright light.”
Several large night paintings are on view in this exhibit, and none of them looks as if the artist was flailing. “Night Ladders,” for example, is expertly done. In this a pair of aluminum ladders standing against a wall catch the deep night darkness and the orange glow from a pair of nearby windows.
“Subaru With Hosta At Night,” a large, almost square painting, shows the front end of a dark blue vehicle, tire turned inward as if it were hastily parked on the grass.
The vehicle casts a deep shadow while the grass and blooming hostas are illumined by an unseen artificial light.
Possibly the most dramatic painting in the exhibit is the large “Street Light.” You enter the painting under a canopy of backlit black leaves whose edges are tinged with light to a yard backlit by houselights throwing bright orange and yellow light on the ground that is dissected by strong shadows of upright poles.
The only surprise Epstein could have had when he viewed it in daylight was how well he pulled off such a challenging undertaking.
Epstein earned a MFA degree from Brooklyn College, and his work has been seen in galleries and museums in this area including the Trenton City Museum, Rider University, the Newark Museum and the Noyes Museum of Art.
He has exhibited in the National Academy of Design In New York, U.S.S.R. Artists Union Gallery in Moscow, and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.
Epstein is represented by Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Maine, where he had a solo exhibition in 2010.
“Having grown up in Lawrence Township and spent so many years showing and painting in the area, this feels like a real homecoming,” Epstein says.
“Intersections of the Man-Made and Natural Worlds”
When: 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. by appointment, through March 2
Where: The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton
Contact: (609) 924-7206