Miriam Seidel, Art in America

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Miriam Seidel, Stuart Shils at Mangel
Art in America, September 1993, Review of Exhibitions

The 19th-century plein-air oil sketch, as practiced by Constable, Corot and in this country, Henri and others, can be seen as a precursor to modern abstraction. The sketch’s smallness and often private demeanor act as pictorial solvents: Constable’s cloud paintings, for example, show brushwork inspired by nature but liberated from the demands of representation. For a number of years Stuart Shils has been perfecting the plein-air oil sketch in a modern, post-abstract context. Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where traditional painting technique has persisted improbably into the present curriculum, Shils cultivates that tradition with grace and fresh awareness. Working in oil on paper, he paints scenes from older, passed-over sections of Philadelphia, including his own neighborhood of Manayunk, whose hillside rowhouses offer fine views of the downtown skyline, as well as of more rural areas. Shils’s delicate, even nervous brushwork causes cars trucks and buildings alike to shimmy in an overall atmospheric bath. To the industrial-age factories and rowhouses he brings an easy command of traditional tonalities, which read just right for the surfaces depicted: saturated umber for the shadowed facades of A Dark Side Street Near Parkside Avenue (1992), grayed sienna for the wall of The Coal Yard Door (1991). He shows similar ease in achieving underpainting effects by painting over different-hued papers. Shils’s devotion to the deep vista may explain his decided preference for the small format (the average size of these works is 9 by 12 inches). Perhaps paradoxically, the very modesty of scale seems particularly conducive to long-range views and full compositions: several paintings include views across the Schuylkill River, with details of the far shore still perfectly legible. In the rural and forest paintings, Shils allows his restless brushwork to loosen further toward expressionism. Winter Early Evening (1992), with white cottage, woods and moon in a rolling sky, recalls Albert Pinkham Ryder; another painting is titled in explicit homage to him. The woods scenes (there were five here) seemed to shade toward a new direction for Shils. Lacking horizon lines, these close-valued aggregates of foliage and hazy atmosphere are the only works to begin to flatten out the picture