To Know the Dark: David Niec
Skies: John Riepenhoff
September 24 through November 12, 2022
Opening reception: 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, September 24
Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art is pleased to present a major exhibition of new work by David Niec with a companion exhibition by John Riepenhoff. The exhibitions open September 24 and run through November 12, 2022. The gallery is open noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
To Know the Dark: David Niec features oil paintings and drawings by this well-known painter of the moon and night sky. Niec received a significant grant from the Adolph Gottlieb Foundation in 2021 which enabled him to work steadfastly for nearly two years on this new body of work.
Niec has engaged in ever-nuanced visual exchanges with celestial phenomena for three decades. Each moonrise and moon span is unique depending on season, location, weather conditions, and reflections. The lunar month of 29.5 days presents an animated script from new moon in shadow, to the bright orb of full moon, and back to the new moon. It is predictable but never the same. Niec often spends weeks alone in his family’s cabin near Crivitz, Wisconsin, trudging through ice, snow or rain into the woods to witness the quiet theater of the night and the related notions of time that ripple within seasons.
To enter David Niec’s home and studio is to step into an almost disorienting blur of paintings and practical life. While his actual studio is up a steep set of stairs above his garage, the work spills into every room as if his subject cannot be tamed or contained. These paintings are created outdoors at night and then worked on over a period of months or years in the studio. The paintings in this exhibition range from intimate canvases to multi-sectioned panoramas. This new body of work continues the seriality of the moon paintings but addresses the light in increasingly inventive and dramatic terms, with Niec’s paint handling becoming more gestural. The new work seems to experiment with the balance between an emotive and exacting translation, framing the inevitable truth that the content of any plein air painting is the space between seeing and mark making. Niec labels each work officiously, “Moon Set over Winter Stream at 35 % Illumination,” or “The Waxing Moons over Lake Michigan, Nights 9-12,” which belie the paintings’ metaphysical presence.
“Wild uncultivated spaces have long served as a source of inspiration,” Niec said. “I frequently place myself in such places, using perception and invention, to make paintings from the surroundings. I find clarity in wild places. If, for instance, the moon is rising and I’m in a natural setting, every part of me knows it. Furthermore, I’m surrounded by habitat that responds to the moon in its own way.”
David Niec earned a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he studied with Wisconsin’s other noted painter of the outdoors, Tom Uttech. Niec credits Uttech with understanding the energies of the wilderness, stars and nighttime. A turning point in his career was a residency in 1996 with the internationally-known British “land” sculptor David Nash. Nash recognized the purpose and commitment of Niec’s work. They have remained friends.
Skies: John Riepenhoff
John Riepenhoff is the owner of Green Gallery in Milwaukee as well as a curator and an artist. This body of work, created over the past 10 years, documents night skies from vantage points around the world. Because Riepenhoff travels frequently to art fairs and exhibitions where he presents other artists’ work, a desire to connect with and create in these places led him to begin packing paints and 12 x 18 inch canvases into his suitcase. This mobile studio provided a kind of physical immersion within the act of plein air painting. A beach in Miami during Art Basel, the roof of a London hotel, a residency in Japan, an exhibition near Marfa, Texas, or visits to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest became sites to directly witness and record the sky.
Through this practice, Riepenhoff consciously strives for a state of suspended ambition or expectation. He speaks of these paintings as a means to “distill ego out of painting” by relocating control and refocusing intentionality. Painting at night, he says, is a kind of willful impairment. He can’t see the canvas as clearly in the light of the night sky and must rely on nuance in response to the atmospheric conditions. When he returns to the canvas in the morning, to see it in brighter light, he senses its otherness, from a different perspective than it was authored. “There are great discoveries in this,” he said. During COVID when he traveled less frequently, Riepenhoff would set up canvases in the courtyard of his Riverwest project space called The Open, working at a much larger scale.
In a recent review of a show at Broadway Gallery in New York, the critic Will Heinrich wrote in the New York Times that “...what Riepenhoff succeeds in depicting isn’t the look of the open sky, but its feel — its emptiness, its paradoxical density, the weird spiritual disquiet you may experience when staring into something infinite and intangible.”
Like David Niec, Riepenhoff has a childhood history of the outdoors. Both artists still frequent their family cabins in Northern Wisconsin. Riepenhoff’s father Bob was the outdoor writer and editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
John Riepenhoff received a BFA from the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He is curator and co-owner of The Green Gallery, Milwaukee, WI, collaborator at The Open, co-organizer of Milwaukee International and Dark Fair. Recent exhibitions and curatorial projects include a solo exhibition at Broadway Gallery,
Whitney Museum of American Art, Marlborough, and Swiss Institute New York, NY; Tate Modern, London; Crystal Bridges, Bentonville, AR; 356 Mission Rd, Los Angeles, CA; Poor Farm, WI; Lynden Sculpture Garden, Inova, and The Suburban, Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, GA. He founded
Milwaukee's first Beer Endowment for artist-run organizations.