A show at the Radius Gallery pairs two artists and two mediums — skyward landscapes and abstractly decorated ceramics — in a complementary joint show.
The two — Dale Livezey, a Helena painter, and Josh DeWeese, a Bozeman ceramicist — have known each other for 30 years, from when DeWeese was the director of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.
It was Livezey’s idea to show their work together. DeWeese hasn’t really done a joint show with a painter before, other than occasional shows with his family. His parents, Ginnie and Robert DeWeese, were pioneering Montana modernists, but they both felt their work played well together. Their palettes even work together naturally, DeWeese said.
Radius owner Lisa Simon thought the title says it all: “Sky Above | Earth Below.”
The big sky above is hanging upstairs. Livezey’s “Evening’s Flight” stretches out across the wall, a panorama of 10 feet wide and 4 feet high. Based on Freezout Lake, there’s a calm gradient of purple in the foreground, with the Rocky Mountain Front in the back and Sawtooth Ridge’s craggy silhouette.
Livezey scouts for locations around the state. Some are explicit in the titles, others you might recognize — the Mission Mountains and Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge, the Front, the Beartooth Mountains, Kevin Bench in the Sweetgrass Hills. He takes voluminous amounts of photographs, which is much easier now than it was when he shot on film. He likes to drive to the end of dirt roads, even sleep in the back of the van, so he can stay in those remote spaces rather than find a spot that’s more populated.
The pandemic freed up more time for such trips last season, although the pieces in the show date back several years.
He works primarily from photographs in his studio, editing down and adjusting the scenery as he likes, although the places are recognizable despite any liberties he may have taken. Mountains that haven’t shed all their snow are more dynamic, for instance.
The natural color from the scenes, and the photos, is not always faithfully rendered. He’s developed his own palette of magic-hour colors, sunrise to sunset, over decades of experimenting. “Evening’s Flight,” for instance, is almost pure purple tones. Another interpretation of Sawtooth is in violet, pinks and oranges. Kevin Bench’s sky rises from peach to yellow to turquoise.
In other pictures, the color is reined in. He’s driven through the Helmville area many times, but one particular spot might not jump at him “unless the shadows are just right, the sun is at the right angle, the right time of day, and then it gets lit up briefly.” That comes through clearly in “Spring Rain,” which has the pop of fresh green against stark blue, varnished with a delicate indication of rain.
In the past several years, he’s begun scaling up — “I realized that my style, it just makes sense to go there. Because I try to simplify things. That works on a big scale.” The large unbroken surface of water in “Evening’s Flight” took five layers to achieve the right effect — each new layer brought it closer to a result he was happy with.
There’s a sense of glorified isolation that Montanans will “get” without much explanation required. In his pictures, there are no people, and apart from two small, distant swans in “Evening’s Flight,” no animals. No structures either. In the scene that became “Beartooth Dawn,” there was “a beautiful set of barns and houses.” He thinks they would be a distraction, though. They might stir a narrative in the viewer’s mind. Edit them out, and the narrative is only the viewer’s. You, in that space, with the mountains pulling you forward.
His experimentation has always been about those sky colors. He likes the vista, the large sky, a feeling of “beckoning,” a word he uses frequently.
The horizon line is usually positioned very low, opening up the majority of the composition to the sky. Years ago, he saw an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings in New York. It “really moved me,” he said. “I definitely had an emotional response, connection to those. Maybe that was a part of the fact that I live in a place called the Big Sky Country.”
An open sensibility, earthy quality and colors (tans, browns and blues) are shared with DeWeese’s large jars, mugs, cups, platters, baskets and more pieces in the signature style that the ceramics professor at Montana State University has honed over the years.
A few of the jars are marked with dripping glaze, running across the surface in an unexpected direction — horizontally. It’s an effect he’s been experimenting with for a short while now.
“I’ve been working with this one area in my kiln that really lends itself to that perfectly,” he said in a phone interview.
It’s somewhat risky — if the glaze is too runny it might not be salvageable — it could end up sticking on the kiln, for example. Or it might be too messy to clean up. The element of chance is something you have to accept, he said, and if you do, then that’s “the magic of the firing process.”
When the finished product emerges, “there’s something really beautiful about that,” he said, especially with the “luminous quality of that green glaze.”
Copper green, a glittery bronze, and turquoise show up frequently, all tones that he finds seductive.
“I’m really drawn to the richness of the subtle, luscious vibrancy of what can happen with that glaze.”
Layered in, under and around is line work that’s often submerged or somewhat obscure. Sometimes a pot or a lamp is clear but otherwise they’re deliberately vague. One person thought they saw a boy with a sailboat, Simon said. He bases them on scenes from around his studio such as pots or a mop bucket, etc.
He’ll “draw the space in front of me, and whatever that might be,” and then see how it translates onto a 3D surface. His parents drew from life around the house all the time when he was growing up. They’re responses to a space, rather than exact renderings. “If it’s too recognizable, then I’m not as happy with that. I like there to be some hint of what it is, but I like when the viewer starts to see something else in it.” They’re frameworks for abstraction that will work together with the color and glazes.
One feature of his work that’s expanding skyward are the baskets — large cylindrical vessels with organic handles, some quite tall, that remind him of taffy. They have internal U-shaped bends, like the handles got minds of their own and started stretching upward.