The plein-air paintings in the All Things Arcata exhibition hold up a mirror to the city of Arcata, and the city looks good in this light. There can't have been many occasions on which the streetscapes of a town of 18,000 have been so lovingly, meticulously documented. In plein-air ("open-air") painting, popularized by the Impressionists' scenes of Paris and its suburbs, visual impressions are recorded in real time on the spot. The watercolors, oils and acrylics on display at the Umpqua Bank's Upstairs Gallery are accurately observed and fresh as a sea breeze.
From the plaza to the marsh to the bottoms to the Humboldt State University campus, "the artists in this show have worked tirelessly out on the streets of Arcata to capture the daily life of the town," said Paul Rickard, who worked with Toni Magyar of Umpqua Bank to organize the exhibition. Respected veterans of the local plein-air painting scene — including Jim McVicker and Stock Schlueter, who have been exhibiting locally since the 1980s — are joined here by Rickard, Toni Magyar, Richard Stockwell, Steve Porter, Ryan Jensen, Andrew Daniel, Alan Sanborn, Rick Tolley, John Crater, Kathy O'Leary, Claudia Jennings Lima, John Jameton, Joyce Jonte, Rachel Schlueter and Jody Bryan.
The paintings are primarily landscape views and architectural studies. The city's human dimension is implied in the artists' selection of views, rather than being made explicit. We see the city through painters' eyes and each page or canvas registers as a capsule of lived experience. Many come across as Valentines to the city, documenting its endearing fusion of shaggy peculiarities and architectural starch.
You don't need to be part- or full-time Arcatan to enjoy these cityscapes and landscapes. That said, viewers who know the city will enjoy the charge of recognition as familiar haunts and views take shape on the walls before them. In "Arcata Wakes — G Street," by Ryan Jensen, dark blue shadows stripe the empty street in the composition's lower half, while touches of blue and beige come together to create the impression of drifting morning fog. Vertical and horizontal brushstrokes create the impression of an underlying grid beneath a screen of drifting color.
Stock Schlueter's painting "Atop G Street" documents an effect that will be familiar to local pedestrians: the moment when, walking south along G Street, you top a gentle rise and suddenly Arcata's downtown is spread out like a checkerboard below you, the land sloping vertiginously away to the great shining mirror of Humboldt Bay and the hills beyond. These features are rendered in Schlueter's characteristically buttery paint, in a delicate range of tonalities that convey something of the true luminescence of the late-afternoon western sky. The palm tree that grows on the east side of the street marks the view's emergence like an exclamation point in Schlueter's composition, as it does in life.
Jim McVicker's "The Autumn Light of McKinley" presents a view of the Arcata Plaza taken from the northwest corner and dominated by the bronze statue of the eponymous president at center. McKinley bestrides his pedestal, oblivious to the blurred bodies huddled at his feet, framed by the V of the plaza's iconic palms. The contentious debate that culminated in the recent decision to remove the statue from its longtime position in the center of the plaza may lend the title added poignancy.
Rickard sees the impending removal as an omen heralding the evolution of ideals, coming as it does at a time when local economies struggle to evolve from resource extraction practices founded in the slash-and-burn ethos of the frontier into industries that are more environmentally sustainable. "McKinley comes down soon. This is symbolic of a move from the frontier mentality to something new, something better, I hope," he says.
All Things Arcata commemorates the art being made by members of the close-knit community of local plein-air painters at what its organizer believes to be a quietly pivotal historical moment. "There's a sense that we are poised in a moment of transition, a moment where the passage of generations is making itself felt," he explained. "It's important to look at our town and take stock of who we are."
"All Things Arcata" will be on view in the Upstairs Gallery at Umpqua Bank at 1063 G St. in Arcata from Dec. 7-30. Call 269-7329 for more information.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.