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Art Review: Spanish artist again brushes up on his view of the city

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

By Barry Hannegan

The current showing of recent oils by Felix de la Concha at Concept Art Gallery is the artist's fourth one-man show in Pittsburgh; it follows the exhibition at the same venue in 1999, an exhibition of his panoramic series of views of Penn Avenue at the Garfield Artworks in 2001, and the provisional display of his monumental "365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning" at the Carnegie Museum of Art as they were being painted in 1999. This last group has been permanently installed in the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall.

"Farewell to Pittsburgh," an exhibition of work by Spanish painter Felix de la Concha at Concept Art Gallery, includes "Cactus" at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photos)

The exhibition continues through April 12 at 1031 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 412-242-9200.

It is good indeed to have the opportunity to see more of de la Concha's extensive and startling documentation of Pittsburgh. Here he presents us with a varied selection of views of his preferred neighborhoods, Friendship and Bloomfield, where he lived from 1997 to 2000. To these views, the present show adds a series of 10 vignettes of Phipps Conservatory, a refuge when severe weather forced the artist to abandon his customary plein-air working. The memorialization of the great Victorian glass house is a welcome addition to the painter's growing iconography of the city.

The extraordinary assurance of his draftsmanship and his unbounded sensitivity to color are recognizable hallmarks of his style. They are essential tools for his chosen role of painter of the urban landscape. Spanish by birth and trained, at least initially, at the University of Madrid, de la Concha must early on have imbibed the reticent sensuality of Velasquez and Zurbaran. To ferret out possible sources or inspirations as his works suggest them to the viewer is a rewarding game best left to each visitor to the exhibition, but Canaletto, Hopper and James Pryde came readily to mind.

De la Concha's working method has become widely recognized for its fluency and sureness. His dedication to painting while looking directly at his subject requires dispatch and succinctness of handling, qualities that were introduced into Western painting through the development of the oil sketch by painters of the Baroque era. The ingratiating painterliness of his work represents an extension and enrichment of a long tradition just as his chosen subject, the city, identifies him as the contemporary exponent of an artistic predilection extending back better than three centuries.

For all the delight that the physical qualities of his paintings give, it is perhaps the evidence of a sharp and sometimes wry visual wit that most rewards a slow inspection of any of his canvases. He uses his capacities as a recorder of appearances to nudge us into another way of understanding what we think he may have seen and what we in fact are seeing in his painted account of that experience.

Also at the exhibition "Double Vision" of Bloomfield.

De la Concha's frequent choice of unconventional canvas proportions is a way of alerting us to a possibly different take on reality. In a more emphatic fashion, the artist's liking for sudden shifts of scale and the resulting inconsistency of space force us to reconsider what and how we see. The large painting on four canvases, "Shadows of Winter," reverses the customary compositional format of centrally placed receding space enclosed by lateral elements and gives the thundering, beautiful brick wall center stage while relegating the "view" aspects of the painting to minor but richly painted corners.

Of the works exhibited, perhaps "Panoramic View from Bloomfield Bridge" most fully embodies the qualities of de la Concha's achievement. A series of 41 small contiguous canvases, the painting not only captures the bridge as few of us have consciously seen it but also records in an utterly unique vision many of the identifying features of the Pittsburgh landscape. A tour de force, a sort of collaboration between an artist of tremendous ability and a city of unparalleled visual richness, the painting surely should stay in Pittsburgh. What would it look like in the new Convention Center?

The show at Concept Art Gallery is titled "Farewell to Pittsburgh" (the artist lives now in North Carolina), but that is not quite true. De la Concha is just finishing a campaign of painting at Clayton, the products of which will be shown at the Frick Art Museum in February of next year. Waiting will be hard.

Barry Hannegan is a freelance writer and the former director of historic design programs for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

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