by Randi Bjornstad
Margaret Coe’s new show at the Karin Clarke Gallery in downtown Eugene is called “Italy 2016,” but the exhibit’s back story is a bit more complicated than that.
The well-respected Eugene artist is the mother of gallery owner Clarke and the widow of another venerated local painter, Mark Clarke, who died suddenly in January shortly after his 80th birthday.
Coe had spent time painting in Italy in 2015 while attending a painting workshop there, her daughter said, “and that really warmed her up to the place and the subject matter.”
“She hadn’t planned to go again this year, but she met so many wonderful people the first time, and after my dad died they urged my mother to go back and paint with them again,” Clarke said. “She decided it would help provide structure after losing my dad, so she went in May and June.”
Of the 19 paintings that make up “Italy 2016,” Coe painted 16 on location in Umbria and Rome, completing them in her studio after her return.
The other three, much larger pieces — “Chosen,” “Interior Rome” and “Grief” — are studio works. All 19 pay homage to the remarkable details of Italian architecture, but unlike the sunnier, more tranquil plein air paintings, the studio pieces offer a glimpse into Coe’s emotions as she absorbed the loss of her husband.
“Chosen” and “Interior Rome” are interpretations of the shadowy vastness inside Rome’s Santa Maria Maddalena Church, its Baroque interior completed in 1699 and its Rococo facade in 1735.
“Grief” is different yet, a wild and stormy landscape whose deep grays, blacks and purple tones could be mistaken for the turbulent Scottish moors but which began as a benign depiction of the gently rolling hills and fields of the English Cotswolds that Coe later reworked.
Of the three, “Grief” is the most viscerally emotional expression of Coe’s loss —“an expression of her internal landscape,” Clarke said — while the paintings from Santa Maria Maddalena “are much more spiritual, mysterious, even mystical.”
“They both have a feeling of something infinite, something unknown,” she said. “Both incorporate a statue that seems very feminine and which seems to be looking at or for something, and both paintings have what appear to be subtle, dark figures contained somewhere in them.”
Coe’s work always reflects “a continual reinvention of herself and her style,” Clarke said. “She fully embraces her experiences and presents each one in a series of paintings that is remarkably different from what came before.”
Dozens of people stopped by the gallery during October’s First Friday ArtWalk in downtown Eugene, including Eugene artist Kathleen Caprario, whose artistic expression underwent a similar metamorphosis following the death of her husband several years ago.
“One of the great strengths of art is that it portrays things that we can’t articulate, that sometimes we can’t even recognize but which helps create empathy and a bridge between us and others,” Caprario said.
The difference between Coe’s three large studio paintings and the other pieces in “Italy 2016” are striking as well as encouraging, Caprario said.
“The show is beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” she said. “There is an underlying structure to all of these pieces, but I see in the (landscapes) more airiness, more freedom and lyricism than in the darker pieces.”
For Coe, one of the joys of putting together a show is to see her paintings the way other observers do.
“When I’m painting and framing, each piece is an individual, but when they’re all up on the wall together, they become unified in a different way,” she said. “It’s like practicing a piece of music and then seeing it all come together in a performance.”
Not only that, “I also get feedback that helps lead me to push my painting further than I have already gone,” she said. “The hints to my next steps are right here in this show.”
Hours at the Karin Clarke Gallery at 760 Willamette St. are noon to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
For information, call 541-684-7963, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to karinclarkegallery.com.