Through the magnifying glass
When you get up close, really close, magnifying-glass close, Gene Speck’s oil paintings look tighter than they do from far away. Details don’t fuzz into mere brushstrokes, but refine into meticulous detail. Images that seemed two- dimensional gain some depth of field and a third dimension.
When you take the trip to Gene Speck’s Silver State Gallery, make sure and ask gallery director-owner Carolyn Barnes for the magnifier. (Barnes and Speck opened the gallery 14 years ago, and shortly thereafter, Barnes took over the business end of things, so Speck could focus on his passion.) Smeared fingerprints might cloud the magnifying glass’s surface—Barnes says that children get a kick out of poring over Speck’s pieces—but the close and careful observation it tenders are well worth the second it takes to polish it on your shirt sleeve.
Speck’s pieces could unjustly be lumped into that mammoth tradition of Great Plains landscape paintings that have been an artistic mainstay since pioneers started heading west. They’re soft, nostalgic and tenderly serene. Every one of them says, “Don’t you wish you were here?” And nary a person would answer “no.” Speck’s paintings capture some of the most idyllic and picturesque settings in the world.
Catching a glimpse from the corner of your eye, a Speck painting may seem as trite as any other Bob Ross-esque piece that focuses more on technique than spontaneity and creativity, but refined observation shows otherwise.
Speck has an uncanny ability for painting a time of day. In most landscape paintings, there’s a general sense of high noon, darkening evening or first light of sun, although it’s often difficult to distinguish between the more sensitive transformations of dusk and dawn.
In “Alpine Meadows,” brilliant turquoise water is muted only slightly by the diffused light of a 6:30 a.m. not-quite-risen early-summer sun. The pond is shaded around the edges by dark green shrubs. On the far side of the pond, a Native American man stands with his back to the viewer. His posture suggests that he engages in this sun salute every day, ritualistically. Near the man, a burning fire diminishes as the need for it wanes.
The magnifying glass amplifies the realness of the fire. Through the glass, each flame licks the air with a sense of individuality, and the smoke appears to waft off the gessoed masonite. (Speck usually prefers masonite over canvas because the hard surface makes it easier to render minute detail.)
In “Winter’s Beginning,” the time is early evening. Clouds weaken the power of the setting sun. A woman walks back to her teepee encampment with a horse and dog trailing her. Her companion waits next to what seems a recently kindled campfire. A clay basin sits on the ground in front of him; it looks even more three-dimensional than the earlier mentioned fire. You can almost look inside the pot, like you could a real bowl. Same goes for one of the teepees. With its door-flap pulled open, it looks like you could stick your little pinky inside the entrance and let your whole body follow behind, similar to Lucy and the armoire in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
When it comes to talking about his work, Speck is enormously tacit, though very lucid, just like his art.
“Nice to meet you, Gene. … How do you paint differently than other artists?”
“I just paint the way I want to, which is what you see.”
“I just like to. I paint what I like to paint.”
“How do you keep from getting bored painting countryside after countryside?”
“I just suffer through it. It’s the way I make a living, so I have to.”
Creating about 100 pieces a year (and selling them!), Speck’s passion has turned into a labor-heavy career. He’s living the artist’s dream.