Midnight winter wonderlands

Works by Leigh Tarentino, plus Duane Slick and Andrew Nixon
By GREG COOK  |  December 4, 2013

SILENT NIGHT An untitled work from Tarentino's 'Memory of Snow' series.

Leigh Tarentino’s paintings make you feel the hush and chill of a crisp December night. And the wonder, too.

In one of her scenes at the Wheeler School’s Chazan Gallery (228 Angell St, Providence, through December 11),
the long shadows of bare trees stretch across snow next to a path. In another painting, a fringe of black trees and a milky white field, or maybe an icy pond, sit beneath a big shimmering silver sky festooned with stars or blowing snowflakes and perhaps the glowing ribbons
of the aurora borealis.

The best painting of her acrylic-on-board Memory of Snow series depicts a wide lawn between a pair of houses edged with shrubs at night. Then in the center, a bare, decorative tree sprouts from an oval of white thrown off by the white dots of Christmas lights delightfully twinkling among its black branches.

A few years ago Tarentino, a Providence artist who teaches at Brown University, was painting watercolors of light poles and utility wires and signs, often mirrored for a curious kaleidoscope effect. They were fun but kind of gimmicky. Then around 2011, she began painting trees and shrubs outlined by holiday lights with white acrylic paint on black paper.

You could follow her train of thought from the signs of roadside America to the ways we gussy up our yards — something about how we present ourselves to others via our outdoor stuff. And rather than playing around with the design of the streetscapes to make them feel fresh, the snowy yards provided a seductively pretty subject waiting for some artist to notice it.

Tarentino distills everything to black and white and gray here — and in several cases just black and black. In her painting with the illuminated tree, she uses minute, virtuoso variations of darkness to pick out the tarry black of the tree and bushes versus the slightly lighter black of the houses and the marbled black of the sky.

Our various winter holidays are at root about lighting up the seemingly endless darkness of the longest nights of the year. Tarentino taps into some of those feelings: the places left still and silent and deserted by people who have retreated inside, the enveloping gloom — and the way those twinkling lights can warm your heart.

Artworks by Duane Slick hang on the other side of the gallery. He chairs the RISD painting department and is nicely paired with Tarentino because his minimalist acrylics of black, white, and gray stripes — some with red stripes — explore the same palette, and tease a similar line between realism and abstraction. A descendant of the Meskwaki of Iowa and the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) of Nebraska, his abstract paintings with their rough edges might echo patterns of traditional Native American blankets.


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