Jane Bloodgood-Abrams’ paintings resemble the Hudson River School landscapes of more than 150 years ago, but they are not copies. That 19th-century tradition, in which painters like Asher Durant, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church painted panoramic views of forested mountains rising from mist-obscured valleys and the sinuous, gleaming river bathed in golden light, celebrated the sublime in the American landscape just as it was being decimated by industry. To some modern eyes, however, Hudson River School paintings can look a bit lifeless: contrived, chromatically dull and overly worked. In contrast, Bloodgood-Abrams’ paintings are fresh reimaginings, their shapes and colors bold, their representation unfussy and reliant on tones and colors rather than detailed description. There’s an abstract logic and integrity that underlie her representations, which enhance the elegiac mood and the sense of an intense, all-encompassing moment of light.
Fourteen of Bloodgood-Abrams’ paintings are currently on display at Carrie Haddad Gallery, part of the Hudson-based gallery’s “Landscapes: Capturing the View” exhibition, which closes on January 6. The largest is View from Boscobel, measuring 30 by 48 inches, while the smallest consists of two series of six-by-six-inch works, titled Iluminata and Horizon, which depict light-drenched skies, with just a suggestion of undulating landscape in loosely brushed umber along the bottom of the canvas. The show follows another exhibition of her work last September at the Mark Gruber Gallery in New Paltz, which also showed paintings by her husband, Paul Abrams.
The couple, who have two grown daughters, live in Kingston and have been part of the city’s nationally heralded artists’ community for more than two decades. Bloodgood-Abrams, who’s listed in Who’s Who in American Art, has forged a successful career from her art, showing not only in local galleries but also in New York City and across the US as well as in Europe.
Where did you grow up? Did you always have a connection with the Hudson River landscape?
My parents moved up here from Queens after they had two little girls. I grew up living in the country a few miles outside of New Paltz. We had 10 acres, and it was a mini-farm, with different animals. However, because my parents were older and homebodies, we didn’t experience many forays into the nearby Shawangunk or Catskill Mountains or along the Hudson.
How did your career as a visual artist develop?
My elementary school art teacher held my drawing up for the class one time. Something clicked that I must be doing something right, and I went on from there being into it. I had a very good art teacher in high school, Fran Sutherland, who really set me up for studying art in college. It was the 1980s, and the art being taught at the College of St. Rose, which I attended, was about Neo-Expressionism. They weren’t interested in teaching academic realism. But I enjoyed working with the paint and got into Expressionism, which carried through my grad school years at SUNY-New Paltz. I was doing very large work and had exhibitions of my work.
What caused you to make a dramatic change in your style, which went against contemporary fashion?
I had a revelation. It didn’t strike me until my late 20s what a beautiful landscape this is. Soon I was leaving out figures in my work and depicting landscapes that were kind of otherworldly. I started working on-site, in an Impressionistic style, and learned about the Hudson River School. Many of the places those painters painted from are preserved, so we could see the views they painted today. I’d go to a museum and see works that were capturing what I was feeling when I was out in nature. That light made me feel some kind of connection to something. It was a feeling of something higher, something spiritual. It all took place here, so that I could still experience what I was connected to in those paintings – the same light and expression and spirit. That morphed into how I paint.
People still say, “I like your old work.” They kind of pooh-poohed what I was doing, and tons of major galleries would have no interest in this kind of painting. It was a different way of expressing myself. Before, I was expressing angst with my Expressionism, and this was the opposite: the expression of something soothing and calming.
How did you learn to paint in the traditional manner, using underpainting and layers of transparent glazes?
I was doing mostly pastels when I started doing landscapes, and I did get frustrated because I couldn’t capture that glazed luminosity, so then I became mostly an oil painter. It involved a lot of experimentation. It was a combination of observing – I got yelled at when I went to museums for having my nose too close to the paintings – and fooling around with paint to capture that scumbled glazed look, to get that tonal luminosity. I’m not a big person on reading all the books or studying the techniques. I didn’t go to great lengths to find somebody to study with. It was a five-to-10-year period before I began feeling I was adept at it.
There are variations within your formal language. I’m thinking, for example, of your show at the Storefront Gallery in 2010 of small, loosely painted tonal works, which emphasized the earth colors of the underpainting.
Sometimes I’ll do something very simple and evocative. Since 2004, I’ve had whole shows doing that kind of work. I’ll go through phases and circle back to more traditional motifs versus more abstract moody landscapes.
A few of the works in the Carrie Haddad Gallery show, such as View from Boscobel, have titles that refer to specific places. Are they literal depictions?
In that particular view I used photos for reference, but they weren’t the same as the painting. The Hudson River School painters would combine a sunset they saw with landforms they’d seen [separately]. You can use your imagination to creatively make a composition. It’s not a portrait, but something more than that.
Especially compared to en plein air, your technique seems like it must be difficult and time-consuming.
Glazing is hard, and sometimes I’ll get impatient, only to say later, “Nope, that was supposed to wait until the next layer.” But some parts of what I do now hearken back to the Expressionistic work I did. I might be thinking about a big sky and land, but I’ll start just putting the paint down and playing with it. It’s the same thing with glazing. There are happy accidents, so I’ll just try something. I do an underpainting, and with an oil wash, wipe some of the paint away.
For all the representational aspect of the work, people would be surprised by how much I work not knowing where I’m going with it. It’s very intuitive. It’s why I don’t teach. Sometimes I’ll walk into a gallery and see my work on the wall and it’s very surreal, because I’ve been detached from it and think, “Oh, whose work is this?” It’s part of the amazing, mysterious energy that moves through artists, where, on some level, we are just the conduit.
You’ve had an impressive success, with representation in numerous galleries, which has enabled you to live solely off the sale of your paintings for many years. Was it difficult getting started?
I entered juried shows both internationally and across the country, which sometimes give you exposure. Maybe a gallery sees you in that city and would like to carry your work. Pre-Recession, things took off. I had five other states I was showing in, and one-time shows in Italy, Germany and Austria. Showing abroad is difficult with Customs, so I didn’t seek ongoing representation in Europe. I’ve shown in Santa Fe, Tennessee and San Francisco, which is where one of my best galleries is located.
It’s interesting that people in very different geographical locales connect with your Hudson River landscapes.
There are so many expats and people who are traveling in these places. Plus, there’s a lot of the country that has a similar look, especially in terms of the light.
Even when I think about whether a painting looks like a specific spot on the Hudson River, and titling it after that place, I want to do an image that’s evocative. I use landscape as a tool to express feelings and moods, so the specific location doesn’t matter. That’s another aspect that made it easy to show my work in different parts of the country.
What are some of your favorite local spots?
I love being up high on Overlook; also Hasbrouck Park in Kingston, which took me a while to discover. It was painted by the Hudson River School painters. I’ll go by the condos on the river in Port Ewen, where there’s a view; I’ll notice something going on toward the river and watch a storm coming in from one direction or the sky turning black.
But you don’t bring your paints with you when you visit these places.
I love new experiences and being in the moment, just absorbing it in a meditative way. It takes away from the experience if I’m trying to create something in that same moment. I like taking that memory, which gets veiled by time or my own psyche, and then go into my studio and see what comes out. It’s the experiences I’m having that are the primary thing. Wanting to create it is secondary.
What brought you to Kingston 25 years ago?
[My husband] Paul and I were looking for a house to raise our family, and Kingston was giving us the most bang for our buck. We bought a nice house for a price we could afford. For years I didn’t need or look for separate studio space. I’d gotten a grant to finish our walk-up attic that had enough room. When my career took off, a New York gallery wanted very large works, which prompted me to rent a studio in a storefront on lower Broadway. That was in 2006. The biggest painting was 60 by 80 inches. I had one major show in a Chelsea gallery the actual week of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Shortly after, the gallery went out of business.
Now you’re about to lose that studio space because the rent is doubling. Are you concerned that Kingston might become unaffordable for artists?
Overall, the artists are a demographic that needs affordable workspace. I have a fear we’ll begin to lose our artists. It’s a real concern, and I’m hoping the city will think about that and the importance of not just affordable living space, but also workspace. People are trying to offer that, but places go quick, and there’s a big influx of more people. Everybody’s got different price points and a different idea of what’s affordable.
Like most artists, you took a hit after the Recession. Has the market improved?
Things improved after the Recession, but the art market I’m in never rebounded anywhere near to what it was. Maybe it was hyperinflated before; I don’t know what the “real” value is. Tastes and styles change. I’m not sure the younger generation even thinks of owning original art. But so what if your work isn’t viable for selling? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to create it. I’ve been able to make a living from what I’m doing, but many people don’t. Other countries provide support to artists.
It’s the gallery in San Francisco that keeps me pretty busy. If I had more galleries, I’m not sure how I would be able to supply them. I work on several pieces at a time, and each takes weeks, if not a couple of months.
Your work brings into our own times that contemplative spirit that so moved and inspired generations past. While so much has changed, that appeal seems eternal.
[Thomas] Cole, who is actually pretty loose, is trying to say something about God, through the drama of dark and light. The sunrise and sunset are key motifs. The sunset is mostly what I see, because I’m not an early riser. It’s so beautiful, it’s heartwrenching. And bittersweet, because the day is ending. It’s like a loss, and in some of my work I try to capture that feeling.
“Landscapes: Capturing the View” exhibition, Jane Bloodgood-Abrams, Tracy Helgeson, Sue Bryan, Susan Hope Fogel, Harry Orlyk, David Konigsberg, Eileen Murphy, Paul Chojnowski, Forrest Burch, John Kelly, Betsy Weis, through January 6, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Carrie Haddad Gallery, 622 Warren Street, Hudson; (518) 828-1915; firstname.lastname@example.org.