Artist John Moore discovered magnificence in ageing infrastructure. Will America?
Is there beauty in decay? Optimistic about aging buildings, bridges and buoys? Is there a philosophy that can be worked out in an oil-on-canvas composite painting of a Maine sky at dusk through a block glass frame from an old Philadelphia factory?
When infrastructure across America has its unlikely moment, painter John Moore at the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia brought a mix of surrealism, beauty, and a somewhat unresolved perspective to the conversation.
Moore, 80, a former Penn art professor and chairman of Penn’s Department of Fine Arts, has painted in Philadelphia for four decades and now lives in Maine. He has always been an optimistic artist, he says, despite a long fascination with decaying metal structures, peeling paint and silent oversized bells.
At the opening of his latest exhibition in November, which consists mostly of works painted in 2020 and 2021, he was surprised to find people calling the paintings darker than his usual work.
“What touched me the most was last year’s isolation,” Moore said in a recent interview. “A number of people have said about the show that this is grimmer than you usually did. It just came out like that. I didn’t consciously think about it. “
The paintings, which combine the acute angles and hard materials of bridges, factories, water towers, and buoys with the lush beauty of the Maine Bay sky at dusk, are on display at the Locks Gallery in Washington Square, titled Here and There gathered. open until December 23rd. It is Moore’s sixth solo exhibition in the gallery since the mid-1990s.
Moore cites Philadelphia-based architect Louis Kahn as an inspiration when he talks about old things, “especially architecture that retains the texture of time on its surfaces”.
“[Kahn] said, ‘There is a beauty in the fact that you are at rest now,’ “Moore quoted.
Moore found such structural layers in the Globe Dye Works building on Worth Street in Kensington, where he had a studio for a decade, a place that “told its story in the texture of its walls.”
The building can be seen in several paintings in the Locks Gallery, its layers of paint peeling off the bricks, its thick block glass and its windows in the interior and exterior sky play with perspective.
“Looking into something through a painting is an important part,” said Moore. “I have used the window motif in particular several times. It’s part of the game that works two-dimensionally. “
The Globe Dye building had a dance company renting above his seat, a photographer in the hallway, the dense architecture of centuries-old Philadelphia everywhere he looked, and the convenience of being a pre-pandemic urban artist. surrounded by creative energy and the inspiration of a permanently built landscape.
For Moore, who is in love with the darkening sky for metal structures and wires, industrial block glass, rusting water towers, dense textures, utilitarian infrastructures that he manipulates in art, Maine inevitably suffered a loss seven years ago.
“I miss everything about Philadelphia,” he said.
In Maine, however, with a house facing the western sky over the water, he found bell buoys, memorials to fallen sailors, a bridge to a small island, and an endless variety of sunsets reflected in Belfast Bay. A sundial pictured after sunset is from Northern California. He has several pictures of large metal bells that might also be reminiscent of a famous Philadelphia bell, especially at the current location a few blocks from Independence Mall.
With his wife Sandra, a designer, he found work in the loneliness of the pandemic, he says. But he says the COVID death of some close friends has taken its toll, which he says found its way into his newest job.
At Vespers, he allows one person to populate his canvas, a man who is sitting on a bench and possibly praying. “I wanted that melancholy-elegiac moment,” he said. On the right, the yellow autumn leaves are illuminated, the beauty of decay an easy lesson from nature.
In true Moore composite fashion, the angel at the head of the fountain in the foreground of the painting is from the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, while the fountain itself is from Bar Harbor. The image of the man on the bench was inspired by his neighbor.
Another inspiration, he says, was Antoine Watteau’s early 18th century painting entitled “La Perspective (View through the Trees in the Park by Pierre Crozat)”.
As you step into the Locks Gallery, located on the southeast corner of Washington Square, you are immediately confronted with Departure hanging on the back wall of the main gallery.
The colors are more vibrant in person, with the oranges and yellows of the peeling paint in the foreground, holding their own beauty convincingly against the yellow and purple of the sky from the rear industrial windows.
A lonely desk stands in the studio, on a floor that shimmers like the water that Moore so often paints. Departure has a feeling of abstract expressionism, with its large fields of color that anchor the composition, but its subjects are taken from real life and meticulously reproduced: the picture is literally the studio in which Moore painted.
Moore allows himself the freedom of composition: objects and structures that come from one place can be placed in another place as the artist likes. The elements are real; the overall composition imaginative, even surreal.
In Tulips and Water Tower, a huge rusted water tower protrudes against the window and seems to transform into the stems of tulips that stand on the windowsill in a water vase. The tulips look massive, other water towers in sight glow bright yellow, the sky purple. Two chimneys in the distance. A wafer-thin curtain flutters in front of an open window. Is it a nice view? Which part will exist? A tulip is already falling limp. Can there be beauty in a chimney, in rusted metal?
“My general outlook is optimistic,” said Moore. “I see beauty in it too.”
John Moore, here and there
Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South
Until 23 Dec. Opening times: Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Information: 215-629-1000 or locksgallery.com.