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Posted on Wed, Aug 5, 2009 : 5:28 a.m.

Art review: Cecily Donnelly's "Landscapes: Oils On Canvas & Linen"

By John Carlos Cantu

Cecily Donnelly’s seven oversized landscape paintings on display at the University of Michigan Hospital are nothing less than aesthetic insight through a painter’s eyesight.

Her exhibit “Landscapes: Oils On Canvas & Linen” — in the hospital’s grand lobby, sponsored by its Gifts of Art program — is an exceedingly clever landscape genre in reverse.  Her en plein air painting is compositionally compressed until it becomes a post-painterly abstract expressionism.

As Donnelly says in her gallery statement, “My landscapes start with small open-air paintings; I may make several sketches from the same viewpoint. Back in my studio, I use the sketches as reference points for larger work. My aim is always to retain a connection to the landscape, but to simply distill specifics into compositions of shape and color.”

This statement is rather modest; it hardly suggests the extent of Donnelly’s aesthetic. After all, what she chooses to simplify isn’t random, since this simplification is ultimately what defines her art.

It takes a patient professional eye to know which visual elements to eliminate. Indeed, it’s akin to the jazz musician knowing which notes to leave out of a chord definition. Donnelly’s palettes are analogous to this sort of tone ensemble. Each painting has a chromatic complexity within its abstract framework.

Each of the paintings on display is therefore keyed to a mood. And of these paintings, two artworks especially show her principle at work. “Moving Light On Wheatfields” finds Donnelly visually riffing within the context of her landscape composition, while “Lake Superior from Pictured Rocks” illustrates her visual condensation at its most abstract.

“Moving Light On Wheatfields” features a grove of green trees on a background hill. But the artwork’s real action lies in Donnelly’s fastidious handling of the rising clouds in the heart of the composition. Crafting a series of sweeping diagonal paint strokes within a broader band of curvilinear billows, Donnelly creates dramatic theater out of nothing more than air.

“Lake Superior from Pictured Rocks,” on the other hand, is supreme abstraction. One of the majestic landmarks of our state, this national lakeshore — in the Upper Peninsula, along Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais — is not a particularly accessible site. Once there, though, a winding trail along the promontory is stunningly scenic. It’s this rare view that Donnelly depicts.

She captures the spirit of this jutting landmass by removing all its detail. As such, this lively work is all condensed inspiration, with its deep blue water contrasted against a horizontally striated peach-tinged skyline and mottled cliff. Granted, “Lake Superior from Pictured Rocks” doesn’t exactly look like Pictured Rocks (or Lake Superior, for that matter). But there’s no question about its expressive identity. Donnelly’s interpretation of this magnificent lakeshore reveals far more than would any mere representation.

“Landscapes: Oils On Canvas & Linen” will continue through Aug. 17 at the University of Michigan Health System Main Floor Lobby Art Gallery, 1500 E. Medical Center Dr. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily. For information, call 734-936-ARTS.

John Carlos Cantú is a free-lance writer who reviews art for