NEW YORK — "Landscape has a tendency to be heroic and I suppose there is a streak of grandeur in my work, but I think it's about the eternal more than the heroic," says New York painter Mark Innerst, whose first Los Angeles exhibition opens Jan. 26 at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica.
"There's a streak of morbidity to the work as well," he adds, "because when you talk about something eternal, you're talking about something dead."
Although he is recognized as one of the leaders of a newly coalescing school of New York landscape painters, Innerst dismisses the label because his subjects aren't limited to that genre. The 33-year-old artist is a master at creating hauntingly lovely images that invoke a complex emotional response.
Interweaving elements of the sublime and the macabre, his work is freighted with an elegiac quality and speaks of beautiful things irretrievably lost and decaying. And, one of the gravest losses, his pictures suggest, is the experience of quiet introspection and solitude that's becoming increasingly difficult to achieve in the chaotic jangle of the late 20th Century.
To enter an Innerst painting is to sense time grinding to a halt and silence descending like an enveloping baffle. Gilded scenes--still lifes, portraits, landscapes and cityscapes--executed with a dense, lustrous exactitude worthy of Vermeer, Innerst's work is steeped in a reverence for history; the idealizing geometry of Precisionism clearly influenced his style, and, like the Hudson River school painters, his work is inflected with a strict Yankee stoicism that allows it to be both voluptuous and chaste.
Although Innerst is evolving away from landscape, his best-loved work continues to be his views of the Northeastern countryside. Narrow ribbons of nature that are almost all sky but for a low horizon line, his pictures present the world in a distant and reduced form, as if glimpsed through a telescope. The implication here is that things look better and are easier to love when viewed from a safe distance--be it the distance of geography, time or memory. The romance of the past is, in fact, a central issue in his work.
"My work is rooted in memory and I suppose I do have a romantic view of the past," he says. "I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a kid and I've always adored antiquities, so I've maybe aestheticized the past."
The allure of the past is fairly easy to understand, and cultures struggling through periods of difficulty often retreat to previously established styles as an escape from the confusion and struggle inherent in the development of the new. Art is presently grappling with a considerable identity crisis, so it's not surprising that Innerst's work is being greeted with a sigh of relief in conservative quarters of the art world.
Although New York Times art critic Michael Brenson dismisses Innerst's work as "coy," and Art in America critic Lise Holst chastises it for having "the tidy decorativeness of a layout in a graphic design firm brochure," the response to Innerst's work has been mostly glowing. "As rigorously thought out as they are beautiful," says critic Holland Cotter of Innerst's paintings. Newsweek art writer Cathleen McGuigan describes them as "exquisite and jewel-like," and Village Voice critic Kim Levin coos over "gorgeously subtle color effects."
All but two works, ranging in price from $32,000 to $48,000, in Innerst's October show at New York's Curt Marcus Gallery sold, and he has placed pieces in several major museum collections (including MOCA's). This all comes as a bit of a shock to Innerst, who claims to be surprised to find himself a blossoming art star.
"I've always had faith in myself as an artist because it comes so naturally to me," he says, "but I never expected it to become a career--that part does surprise me. I must admit that I do see evidence that I'm 'successful' now, but it hasn't changed my life much."
That much is apparent on meeting Innerst. Talking with him at his New York gallery, he comes across as the most modest, self-effacing success you could hope to meet. He's a shy, soft-spoken man with a nervous, fastidious manner, and his personality is marked by a quietly imploding intensity that's clearly reflected in his work.
Born in York, Pa., Innerst says he had "a classic American upbringing. I was the middle child in a family of three children, and both my parents were raised on farms. So, even though I grew up in a small town, a connection with nature was very much part of my childhood. My father was a milkman when I was growing up and I have fond memories of going along on his route, which was a very lovely rural route.
"I always had an aptitude for drawing and was one of those kids who drew all the time," he continues. "I decided on a career in art fairly early on--in second grade when they asked who wanted to be an artist, I raised my hand. My parents always encouraged me to pursue it too, and beginning in high school I just poured over all the art books."