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Artist Philip Koch's key to success? 'Get lost in the woods'

Friday, April 13, 2018

Each of Philip Koch's oil paintings, on view in a long-planned exhibition in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, is an invitation to get lost.

Like Edward Hopper's oils, they employ sunlight as an intoxicant, bathing rural landscapes in impractical washes of illumination that beg the viewer: "Explore me."

His most recent work, while keeping one foot in what Koch calls "that light-loving camp," also vibrates with the movement and energy of early paintings by Charles E. Burchfield.

That stands to reason, as Koch has spent much of the past three years poring through the Burchfield Penney's archives in an attempt to commune with the great watercolorist of the West Seneca wilds. He used that inspiration as fuel for a late-career course change.

"I try hard to get lost, which doesn't take much," Koch, 70, said of his scouting process for new subjects. "Every generation needs people like Burchfield to show, in his way, what it will look and feel like to get lost in the woods."

Koch, who grew up in Webster, just outside of Rochester, and now lives and paints in Baltimore, has long had an affinity for Burchfield's work. His admiration of Burchfield led him to write a letter to former Burchfield Penney director Anthony Bannon expressing a desire to collaborate with the museum.

That letter led to a one-year residency, during which Koch rifled through the center's deep archives of Burchfield sketches and studies and took off on local road trips to sketch and paint in the open air. That year stretched into two and eventually into three, a period during which Koch developed a close relationship with the Burchfield Penney and Buffalo's art community.

The current exhibition, "Time Travel in the Burchfield Archives: Paintings and Drawings by Philip Koch," serves as a record of Koch's love affair with Burchfield. But, perhaps more importantly, it shows how Koch's own painting style changed as a result of the process.

As he learned more about Burchfield's late-career reconnection with the so-called "psychedelic" period of his younger days, Koch, too, decided that a change in approach was in order. He looked at his own work from 20 to 30 years ago, and gained a new appreciation for its sense of freedom. As a result, he adopted a more spontaneous approach and began painting his studies, as Burchfield did, in the open air.

"I think Burchfield's real strength was a sense of movement, and Hopper's real strength was a sense of brilliant, glaring sunlight. I still have one foot planted in that light-loving camp, but the sense of movement and changing directions in Burchfield is so exciting," Koch said during a recent walk through his show.

Pointing at a series of sun-washed studies on the gallery's east wall, Koch explained his process.

"Those were done with my portable easel outside, swatting bugs. They're looser and a little bit more out of control. In some ways, I think they're closest to Burchfield's spirit: that kind of frenetic, over-caffeinated quality that he has," Koch said. "When you're working outside from direct observation, there's so many channels of input sort of washing over you and you're a little bit out of control."

Though Koch's larger paintings are indeed much more controlled, much of the sense of spontaneity in the studies survives. One example is a study and painting of Burchfield's childhood home in Salem, from which the watercolorist painted many of his important early works.

"It's the most art historically significant couple hundred square feet in the country," Koch joked.

On its way from study to studio, like many of Koch's works, the composition gained both complexity and personal meaning after being processed through the artist's imagination. Gone were the leafy green trees, with empty winter branches subbed in. The color palette departed even further from reality.

"We both lie a lot about local color," Koch said of his similarities with Burchfield. "I almost never paint the colors I see, because there's so many other nice ones that nature forgot about."

Koch, like Burchfield, also lies a great deal about the landscape, if only to tell the truth about his own experience.

One one field trip to Chestnut Ridge Park, he said, he admired the view from the top of the toboggan hill where you can catch a glimpse of Lake Erie. In the resulting painting, the land between the hill and the lake is compressed, so that the lake appears to be just within reach. This, like another painting of a fantastical forest drawn from Koch's memories of waiting for the schoolbus, is a nod to his youth growing up along the Lake Ontario shore.

In a separate gallery, visitors can see sketches by Koch and Burchfield side-by-side in large drawers. There, as in his large-scale paintings and smaller studies, it's easy to detect a close affinity between these two artists, each one striving for a slightly different version of the truth.

"I think Burchfield had an amazing sense that being alive was a special, temporary opportunity and that it was a great privilege to be able to have emotions, to interact with the world," Koch said. "That's what really moves me about his example: He's just saying, look at the energy in the world. For goodness sake, open yourself up to it, you'd be missing an incredibly important boat if you don't."

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