Light, water glasses and gems: Gwen Strahle at Oresman

Photo By Patience Kayira ‘20 |  Gwen Stahle’s minimalist aesthetic and exaggerated still-lifes are too easily overlooked, Patience Kayira ’20 writes. 

Photo By Patience Kayira ‘20 | Gwen Stahle’s minimalist aesthetic and exaggerated still-lifes are too easily overlooked, Patience Kayira ’20 writes. 

Patience Kayira ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor

If one walks through the mustard, Smith College-aesthetic walls of Graham Hall within Brown Fine Arts Center, one will stumble upon Hillyer Art Library, where the restrooms and cubicles even feel like artistic installations. The lobby of Brown Fine Arts Center, home of Smith College’s Department of Art, communicates an artisanal atmosphere with its muted carpets and just the right amount of gray. 

Yet, the real surprise lies at the bottom of the staircase. The Oresman Gallery, a small rectangular glass cube, can be found on the lower level of Graham Hall. A timid room in size, it can be easily overlooked. At the same time, the plain cubical shape of the Oresman Gallery provides a conducive environment for the consumption and discussion of art. Currently on display at the Oresman Gallery is Gwen Strahle, painter and professor at Rhode Island School of Design. Strahle’s work focuses primarily on still-life, which she produces from memory and observation. 

Comprised of 15 paintings, the exhibit carries a sense of pattern and repetition. Featuring a conglomeration of varying objects, Strahle’s paintings are soft in shape and earthy in color palette. As written in the e-Digest, the inspiration for this body of work spurred from the artist’s memory of gemstones; with the inclusion of a water glass, one can perceive the variations in brightness within each object. 

Strahle’s paintings feature a common motif of glasses, dishware and vases which supplies the viewer with a sense of domesticity. In addition to household items, Strahle also depicts natural elements: peacock feathers, tulips and gemstones.

Upon entering the Oresman Gallery, one finds a list of the paintings on display. With humble names, the list reads as if it were a poem:“Glass with Orange Cup, Blue gem, Glass with Yellow Bowl, Vertical Green Vase, Green Gem, Glass with Yellow Vase, etc.” 

The exhibit’s minimalistic charm adds intrigue to the paintings. Beginning with “Glass with Orange Cup,” the sea-foam green color scheme creates the impression of an ocean floor. 

Examining the work closely, one will see the faint outline of a transparent glass melding into the green background. The glass reflects parts of the sea-foam green, which upon further examination visually reads as a plate. Right next to the glass, is an orange tea mug. Strahle adds dimension to the cup with the use of red-orange brush strokes within the cup’s center. Accentuated by Oresman’s lighting, the red-orange paint still appears wet, giving the impression that the cup has already been used. 

A similar effect occurs with the painting, “Vertical green Vase.” The green vase stands disproportionately small in comparison to the large flower within it. Painted with smooth brush strokes, the vase is tinted evergreen. At the same time, the white tulip-like flower dominates the entire scene. 

Exaggerated in size and grandeur, the flower blooms with an enlarged ego, ultimately running slightly astray from the theme of nature. At the same time, the tulip’s large size could in fact share a close link with nature as the vase does not inhibit its growth. The vase merely serves the purpose of support.

Strahle’s work encourages one to think beyond the realm of surface-level reflection. A recipient of the John R. Frazier award for excellence in teaching and the Guggenheim Fellowship, Strahle’s work carries simple sophistication. While some may see misshapen household utensils set against muted backgrounds, the exhibit communicates visual poetry. The piece “Red Gem,” presents an intense-nearly monochromatic scene. Placed in a petite three by five frame, Red Gem appears to be a canvas covered in red paint. Yet, within the red, the outline of a diamond’s shape traced in black persists. Although hidden by a red curtain, the gem is still discernible after a second glance. Despite the underwhelming first impression, Strahle’s paintings feature multiple layers of meaning and ideas.

Gwen Strahle’s new paintings will be on display until Sept. 29 in the Oresman Gallery in Hillyer. Hours for the gallery are 8:30 pm to 4:30 pm.