Architect-turned-painter Jeffrey Sells hates overhead power lines. He thinks they should be put in the ground.
But not quite yet.
The power lines appear in the majority of his paintings in Places in Between, his first solo show. The power lines give those works framing, irony, and, yes, a zap of quiet power.
The scenes are hyper-realistic, down to signage, makes of cars, and vegetation. So your first response as you enter the airy rectangular gallery space might be to try identify the intersections or stretches of highway in New Haven, along Route 34 into Derby, and with a touch of Milford beach-scapes on which these compositions are based.
If you succeed, that would be fine with Sells, who spent 40 years with a T-square and then computers doing architectural designs and renderings.
Sells wants to be sure you understand, sooner or later, that you are looking at paintings based on point-and-shoot photographs, but utterly done by the hand of the artist.
“The painting is interpretation, no projection, no tracing, all done by hand. I’m looking for the interpretation and sometimes the deviation from the photo reality,” he said.
In “West Rock,” for example, which features the intersection of Blake and Farnham, he has made the vegetation at the bottom left in the painting far lusher than the “scraggly” stuff that he captured in the three or four point-and-shoot photos he took on foot, or at times through the windshield of his car.
He upped the lushness because “I was trying to contrast what’s left of natural landscape with the intrusion of cars and wires. You can see this cliff-scape only through wires.”
One of Sells’s art heroes and influences is Richard Estes, the photorealist known for his urban compositions.
If Estes can do photorealistic works in an urban setting, why couldn’t he try to do the same for suburbia? Sells asked rhetorically.
Cities do have more interesting architecture, Estes said. But the territory he’s prowling intrigues him, it seems, for the very sins it commits. The power lines in some of his works, like “Hing Wah,” interlace with the tree branches above. The false storefronts make buildings seem like temporary sets on a movie lot.
The absence of substantial architecture in the suburbs adds up to the kind of views you see when “you’re going from point A to point B.”
In short, places in between.
Sells also paraphrased Estes on the subject of how photorealism is painting, not photographic reality. Estes famously said, “I don’t paint garbage.”
Sells said he too thinks hard about how many pieces of litter or lines of cracked pavement, or eroded curb, or oil-stained driveway he should put in or retain from the original photographic research or evidence that triggers each work.
“Depends how I’m feeling,” he pronounced as he surveyed his work—for the first time all in one place. He said he was enjoying seeing the whole ensemble but wondered if too much of the work was “pristine.”
Sells, who retired in 2008 and is presenting the sum total of his painting output since then, said his work should not be seen as moralistic or a crusade to clean up overhead wires or lamp posts and other such outside municipal furniture ensembles that are a kind of affront to an architect’s eyes. Still, he said, “my hope is people will be more aware of their environment” as a result of seeing the work.
The tension between the pastoral and the plunked down or cavalierly slung over gives these works, with their fine finish and eerie verisimilitudes, a quiet allure.
The show runs through the end of the month, with an opening reception on Jan. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m.