Step into the Karin Clarke Gallery this month, and you might think you had walked through the wrong door. Instead of the gallery’s typically loose, expressive fare — think painters such as the late Rick Bartow or gallery regular Adam Grosowsky — you’re surrounded by tightly representational paintings of ships, seascapes and cityscapes by artist James Kroner.
This foray into realism is sparked in part by the fact that gallery owner Karin Clarke has herself studied painting with Kroner. But the small exhibit, with just 13 paintings, also clearly grows out of the deep, moody and deftly detailed quality of Kroner’s work, a perfect fit for rainy, gloomy Oregon winters.
A San Francisco native now living with his wife in tiny (pop. 600) Union, Washington, Kroner met Clarke in 2017 when she enrolled in a painting workshop he taught in Italy. He studied painting at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, an art school founded in 1929 to teach advertising art and one that apparently still values tight technique of a kind rarely taught at other art schools today.
His approach to painting isn’t photo-realistic; instead it combines careful observation with plenty of mood. Take, for example, a large painting in the show, “The Silent Ship”; in it, a three-masted sailing ship is tied at a pier with San Francisco’s Coit Tower rising in the luminous background. The dark 19th-century ship and the modern electrified city with which it’s contrasted both stand out from a sky of warmish gray clouds and the dull waters of the harbor.
People, in these paintings, are generally no more than accents to the landscape. A small work, “Piazza della Repubblica,” uses warm tones to show a rainy street scene in Florence, Italy, in which pedestrians — all facing away from the viewer — carry umbrellas as they walk toward an arch in the distance. Though we don’t see any of their faces, they seem to be leading us through the arch and into the painting.
Kroner starts his paintings, Clarke says, by using colors planned for the work to mix a solid neutral color that he uses to cover the entire canvas. This practice helps unify the canvas, as the painting’s background is created from the same colors that are used to fill in the image.
Competent realist painting is rare in 2022, and its practice sometimes signifies a reactionary challenge to the conceptual excesses of the current art scene. Kroner’s work doesn’t convey that sense of cultural nostalgia. Instead, it simply invites us to enjoy an image and a mood clearly described.
Besides that, Kroner — who is in his early 40s — is decades younger than many of the artists whose work is regularly shown at Clarke’s gallery. That, by itself, is a good reason to drop by.
James Kroner: New Paintings runs through Feb. 26 at Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street. Hours noon to 5:30 pm Wednesday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm Saturday. Masks required.