Dan Gualdoni’s “Coastal Redux” paintings, showing for two more weeks at the Davidson Galleries, are a rare breed of trompe l’oeil. They’re the farthest thing from the usual eye-foolers, the life-size, often vertical still lifes with which William Harnett and his rivals teased viewers in the 19th century. But they irresistibly evoke another, contemporaneous sort of picture surface: the deep luminosity of old photographic prints, together with the ennobling flaws—bubbles in the emulsion, cracks in the paper, stains and burns where the fixative didn’t take—that deepen with age. And they evoke—more than that, they seem to depict—the North Pacific coast in every season except high summer, when drizzle, mist, clouds, and fugitive sun—that magical oyster light—dance along the horizon, and bluffs and sea stacks seem to float upon vapors.
Both these impersonations are so spot-on that viewers swear, or in your reviewer’s case wonder where, they’ve seen that rock, that beach, those dikes before. There’s the Snohomish floodplain, there the Skagit tideflats, there Shi Shi and Cannon Beach. And we wonder how Gualdoni managed to work over photos—manually, chemically, surely not digitally!—to achieve such haunting effects.
Wrong on every count. Gualdoni loves to wander the Northwest’s beaches, and may be doing so right now. To judge by the results, he knows their moods and forms—terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric—better than anyone. He draws inspiration from them, and occasionally snaps a photo to use as a generic, though not a geographic, referent.
But he does not work from, much less work over, any photo, nor depict any place in his paintings. He creates imagined shorescapes in inland St. Louis, where he grew up, lives, teaches, and works.
Here’s how he does it (I buttonholed him at the opening last Thursday): He glues mounting board on super-smooth Baltic birch plywood, then covers it with three layers of (no kidding) Elmer’s glue; it needs a few weeks to cure but dries smooth and translucent, providing just the luminosity he seeks. He then mixes a little oil paint and/or oil-base printing in thick, ochre-tinted transparent lithographer’s medium and smears, scrapes, and jabs the surface with squeegees, rollers, and brushes, trying to tease out the shorescape he remembers, or imagines; his paintings are as much about memory and the tricks it plays as about the tricks that light plays on the sea and shore. Nearly all appear monochromatic or duotone, in every color from antique sepia to olive and magenta; viewed from afar, they look like an album page of old stamps, each in its defining hue. But a single smear might contain six blues, from warm cobalt to piercing ultramarine, subtly intermingled.
The multiple, refractive layers of medium recall the painstaking way the Renaissance masters (whom Gualdoni reveres, of course) built up their scrims of glaze and varnish. Whether it all works, he told me, “depends on how much I believe in the place I’m creating.” When it doesn’t, he scrapes the panel down and tries again: “There can be 15 or 25 paintings in one of these.” Each leaves its ghostly traces. Do the math: This latest installment bring the ongoing series up to Coastal Redux 124.
Gualdoni, who honed his sense of surface as a printmaker, began making smear paintings in 1997. He experienced a sort of shoreside epiphany in 2003, during a three-month residency in County Mayo on Ireland’s West Coast, where “the weather and atmosphere would rearrange themselves every five minutes.” And, in his mind, never left the shore.
The results are at once jewel-like (the panels are just a foot or two square), expansive, and exhilarating. Knowing their improbable genesis does not diminish the effect; I’ve returned again and again to some, lost in their interplay of exact perspective, exquisite surface, and melting atmosphere. And dammit, I know that’s the Skagit flats!
If you go: Dan Gualdoni, "Coastal Redux: Experience & Memory," at Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Pioneer Square. Tuesday-Saturday, 10-5:30, through April 28.
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