Two images. One is a photograph of an immaculate kitchen. The design is sparse and clean; the wood of its cabinets is light tan. Everything is linear and the palate is neutral, with the exceptions of a navy fruit bowl and a creamy-mint shaded vase high up on the shelf. The other image is a canvas that is filled with a forest scene that is blurred, abstract. It holds at least a half a dozen shades of green, the trunks of the trees are colored blush, there’s a rich topaz sky between the canopies.
The architect of the first and the painter of the second is the same artist, Shane Neufeld, whose show, “Other World,” is exhibiting now at the Alpha Gallery in Boston’s SoWa District.
Neufeld is a man of two artistic minds. In one, he works as an architect, based out of Brooklyn, New York. In the other, he is a serious painter, with an eagle-eyed look for landscapes. His firm — L/AND/A (Light and Air) — produces sleek, contemporary designs that breath even through a photograph. His landscapes detail locations meaningful to him — most prominently, the forests of New Brunswick, Canada. The dichotomy between these two practices — the urban architect whose designs sit firmly ahead of the curve and the painter whose paintings capture the depth of wilderness — would be unnerving if performed by a less in-tune artist. Not Neufeld. He sails from one to the other. (One can suppose that Neufeld “the architect who happens to be a painter” and Neufeld “the painter who moonlights as an architect” are two identities dependent on the day, or even time of day.)
“Other World” is an exhibition of 13 landscapes. They range from oil on canvas to acrylic on paper — and in one case, acrylic on panel. The majority of the collection depicts woodland scenes from the aforementioned New Brunswick. The remaining four feature vistas from Archers National Park in Utah. The New Brunswick works are intimate, dense; the ones from Archers are expansive and universal. All feel like something out of a memory, one that is shared: New Brunswick becomes a family camping trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Archers becomes glossed pictures in a grade school geology textbook. Neufeld’s precision lies in his ability to make landscapes that sit somewhere hidden in each of our memories—you can taste the air and feel the heat off the red stones. Their universality makes them as flexible as a song lyric, with each viewer situating themselves in a time and a place that touched them deeply.
The New Brunswick works shuffle between rich, fully formed oil paintings — the largest measuring 36” x 36” — and acrylics, complete, but with the free-flow of a sketch. “Waldweg,” as with all the canvases in the exhibit, has a dreamlike quality. The architect in Neufeld is always at work. He hangs thick brush strokes of leaves and foliage on the scaffolding of sharply detailed tree trunks. These canvases feel like thickets described in a Lawrence novel: untamed and untainted, opaque, lush, brushes of unexpected color, and visceral as a memory. They are textured paintings. The paint drips effortlessly from heavy stroke to heavy stroke. “Gallatin” is the most radical and abstract of the oil paintings. In it, Neufeld pulls the perspective back and out of focus. What we are presented with is a landscape vaster than the previous paintings: in the fore is a meadow tumbling into a woodland; behind is the ridge of a rock formation and the hazy sky.
“Rear Window” is the gem in the collection. We are not sure whether the view is from a cabin in Canada or just the greenery outside a window in Greenpoint. In many ways, it does not matter. (It reminds me most of a photograph by another artist of two minds, the poet and lifelong amateur photographer Allen Ginsberg. The photograph in mind, from the mid-1980s, and taken from his kitchen window, shows a forest of massive fanning palm-like weeds in the dirty courtyard behind his Manhattan apartment.) “Rear View” is laxer than an oil painting like “Waldweg.” The brush strokes are less broad; the colors are more muted. The acrylic on paper is less imposing than the oil paintings in the collection. But the dreaminess of memory is still at the core, along with Neufeld’s attention to structure — the branches and trunks are just enough to keep the lush greens from falling.
By comparison, the remaining four landscapes, depicting Utah, shed the intimacy of the previous nine. The lands in these are relatively bare. In lieu of dense woodlands painted in an assortment of green, Neufeld composes immeasurable rock formations punched-up with unexpected colors. In most, he gives the sky a pearl gray and the dirt on the ground alternates between pink, orange and a mix of green and yellow. In one, “Babel,” Neufeld paints the sunlight beating on the rocks with an effervescent coral.
The most intriguing of the latter four is titled “Double Arch.” The diptych stands alone. In both images, there is emptiness, a physical and Zen-emotional one, at the center. In the left painting, a large burgundy arch holds under it a circle of sky, the same pearl gray as with the others; in the right, dead center, there is what appears to be a pool of golden water on a highland. These two gaps of neutral space feel like the trunks and branches in the New Brunswick works: it feels like seeing the architect playing with the busy space. In the same way that one of Neufeld’s architectural designs is a geomantic relief in a bustling environment like Brooklyn, the pool of water or the blush colored tree trunk brings a calm and structure to the madly beautiful world around them.
What makes Neufeld’s collection of landscapes so engaging is their incredibly personal nature. Like a John Ashbery poem, it feels like we are being given pieces of someone’s memories — ones rendered with such immediacy that they become universal. It’s a pleasure to see the wildly hued imagination of an immaculate architect.
(“Other World” is on view through March 4 at the Alpha Gallery, 460C Harrison Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 536-4465.)