The Languid Pleasures of Sara MacCulloch's Landscape Painting 
at Kathryn Markel Gallery

By Benjamin Genocchio 

Sara MacCulloch


Kathryn Markel Fine Arts

529 West 20th Street, Suite 6W, New York, through May 6

Tuesday–Friday, 10am–6pm; Saturday, 11am–6pm; and by appointment

The enduring attraction of landscape imagery is on plentiful display in the paintings of Sara MacCulloch at the Kathryn Markel Gallery in New York. Nature, in all its wild, mercurial beauty is the subject of this series of paintings, all of which are views from the cottages the artist rents with her daughter every year in Nova Scotia and of time she spent on an Island in Maine while visiting the home of Eliot and Fairfield Porter.

This is Sara MacCulloch’s fifth solo exhibition with Kathryn Markel Fine Arts. Summer is the show title, given the paintings were all painted last summer and depict outdoor environments with warmth and water. They remind you of the work of Fairfield Porter, the dreamy, washed-out palette in particular but also in terms of their overall mood — a languid warmth fills the air, while stillness descends on an unpopulated landscape.

Sara MacCulloch, Front Porch at the Big House, 2023. Oil on board, 30 x 30 inches.

The paintings are inspired by moments and memories, the artist finding inspiration in the beauty of her surroundings, or, as she puts it, capturing moments that “spark a desire to paint it.” MacCulloch freezes these moments with photographs, which are then translated to swift watercolors to try to preserve the color relationships and then she translates the best of them into oil paintings — a more time-consuming process.

Capturing the ambiance, the feeling associated with a moment remains her primary objective. She wants, she says, “to communicate the quality of a moment, something transient, intangible — and turn it into something solid.” This is artistic Impressionism of a sort, although MacCulloch seems less interested in changing light environments than plumbing her overall frame of mind, her spirit, or her disposition in a place.

Left: Sara MacCulloch, Flowers in the Ditch, 2023. Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches. Right: Sara MacCulloch, Summer Fields, 2023. Oil on board, 30 x 30 inches.

We associate painting, as a visual art, with seeing, and yet there are times when I find it evokes qualities more akin to music — feeling, emotion, sensation; sensory pleasure in a word. MacCulloch is highly attuned to these qualities, editing her imagery to give us just enough visual information to gather an impression, the outlines of an idea she is presenting to us in paint. Viewers are then free to imagine the rest of the narrative.

All of this is of course a wicked trick of the eye, a technical exercise by a professional artist designed to make it look like the paintings were spontaneous productions. They weren’t. They took time, effort, and endless repainting to make them look like they are so effortless. They are also carefully constructed with blocky arrangements of forms, shapes, and colors designed to hold together as a total composition and please the eye.

Left: Sara MacCulloch, Inlet, 2023. Oil on board, 30 x 30 inches. Right: Sara MacCulloch, South Harbor, 2023. Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches.

The most interesting paintings seem to be those in which the artist frames her landscape in some way — a fringe of leaves or scrub allowing a view onto a broader, larger landscape, or a distant landscape viewed from inside a house through a large old panel window. In these instances, there is a tension between foreground, middle space, and background which adds a level of complexity and interest to the composition.

The great Hamptons painter Jane Freilicher comes to mind from time to time in these paintings, especially the images of coastal meadows and marshes. But it is the light, the searching spruce trees, simple vases of flowers on a table, or views through windows defining the dreamy watercolors of Fairfield Porter that serve as a reference point within local art history. MacCulloch however manages to enhance and imbue her historical touchstones with a personal vision and style. This is her world.

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