Jack Koeppel, as curator of the D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Marie Matthews Gallery, has created a show that fleshes out the meaning of the word "landscape" to include inner vision, nostalgic memory, and future imaginings. The exhibit, "A Matter of Perspective – Our Personal Landscape," which opens with a reception on Friday, February 8, juxtaposes work from 15 regional artists to provoke viewers into questioning their own relationships to land and place. It is on view through Friday, March 21.
The gallery, at One Preservation Place off Rosedale Road, resides in the Johnson Education Center, home of the D&R Greenway Land Trust. The trust’s primary mission is to acquire and permanently preserve land in seven counties in Central New Jersey. To communicate this vision, D&R Greenway’s leadership decided early on to use art as an educational tool and opened the gallery two years ago.
Landscape is of course the theme of the current show, but in a very real sense Koeppel has also had to work with the "landscape" of the gallery as he designed the exhibition. The gallery comprises three rooms – auditorium, conference room, and a downstairs room with a lower ceiling – each with a different feel and different possibilities in terms of appropriate size of the pieces and their placement.
At one end of the largest room, which serves as an auditorium, is a large piece by Trenton artist Mel Leipzig, who taught art at Mercer County Community College for 36 years. Next to his painting is work by his student of 30 years ago, Linda Pochesci, from Highland Park, and across from Pochesci are paintings by her friend, Dan Finaldi, also from Highland Park. In the smaller conference room down the hall is work by a new artist, Keiko Ishida of Ewing, who also studied with Leipzig just last year.
Each exhibit at the gallery highlights a specific theme related to the trust’s work. Additional events develop that theme. Koeppel says the underlying purpose of the current exhibit "is to highlight and gather respect for all of the different landscapes within D&R Greenway’s region, which includes all of the land between the Delaware and Raritan rivers." These range from natural settings to cityscapes, from small towns to large ones, and from suburban neighborhoods to vacation spots.
To select artists Koeppel looked first at artspan.com, a site that enables artists to develop their own websites and display their work. He selected New Jersey as a region and the website came up with 115 artists. He also contacted Gallery 125, a nonprofit gallery in Trenton that promotes regional artists and often has themed exhibits, and asked for recommendations based on the exhibition’s theme.
Koeppel then evaluated the artists on his list, seeking not only artistic quality, but also diversity in terms of where the artists live and the uniqueness of their styles and artistic visions.
Once he had narrowed the field, he asked each artist: "Tell me which of your paintings depict the landscape that is most important to you." Their answers, varying wildly from realistic to surrealistic and abstract, form the subject matter of this show.
For some artists their personal landscape was their childhood home. Two of the artists treat in very different ways homes that no longer exist except in their memory.
In Hightstown artist Susan Winter’s impressionist "Washday," she painted her house, which ended up being destroyed for new development that never occurred. In an artist’s statement Winter writes, "Having grown up in rural New Jersey in the middle of the last century, I am in love with the disappearing landscape of that era."
Pochesci writes that her paintings explore her search for home, and the spaces in the paintings she is exhibiting are inhabited by miniature houses that force the viewer to ponder their meaning. She says, "The paintings in this show are a composite of many different realities that are put together and don’t actually exist anywhere but on the canvas. In `Front and Back’ the structure is the house I grew up in, my childhood home. After my father died a few years ago, my mother sold this house. The people who bought it tore it down to put up a new structure. This house only exists now in my paintings."
Leipzig’s realistic paintings are of his backyard and of a corner of the campus where he sought solitude. When Koeppel told him about the show’s theme and D&R Greenway’s mission, he responded, "I’m not an outdoor person," claiming that the farthest his wife was able to get him was onto the deck in their backyard. Yet he executes his large canvases out of doors, and as a plein air painter, never uses photographs. A large painting of his deck shows the effects of being painted from life, says Koeppel, adding "From a photo you don’t get the drama of the sky or the nuances of light on the fence."
Other work in the show reflects what Koeppel refers to as "landscapes of the mind." Jamie Greenfield, who teaches art and curates the gallery at the Lawrenceville School, offers work with a surrealistic quality, as she writes in her artist’s statement, "a tension between "inner" and "outer" spaces." Harry Naar, who teaches art at Rider University, portrays an artist’s studio that, according to Koeppel, "represents the artist’s creative mind at work – all the things in his imagination that go into his work – a landscape of the artist’s imagination." Both artists reside in Lawrenceville.
The personal landscapes of other artists are "the places we would rather be," says Koeppel. These include a studio on Cape Cod, the rugged Maine coast, Fifth Avenue in New York, and Paris.
Several of the artists confront the viewer with more ominous visions, for example, in "Loss II" by Paul Mordetsky of Hightstown. Koeppel says Mordetsky "has created these charcoal landscapes that depict the result of Armageddon, barren landscapes that are dark and mysterious, each showing a single human figure." The artist asks, "Is this the landscape of the future if we don’t protect our environment and our planet. Is this what we can hope for?"
A "discussion with the artists" on Sunday, March 2, from 2 to 4 p.m., will explore the theme of this show. Says Koeppel: "We are going to examine from the artists’ perspective the meaning of that word landscape, why they paint landscapes, what that means to them."
Although not an artist himself, except for a bit of photography, Koeppel has worked with artists for his whole career and says, "I put artists in a special category all by themselves."
Koeppel grew up in the art world. His father, George, opened the Queenstown Gallery in Pennington with a partner in 1964, when Koeppel was 12. "Their idea was to have a place to show local artists," he says. His father sold the business in the early `70s, and Koeppel was able to repurchase it about a decade later in 1980. He ran the gallery for 25 years until he sold it in 2005.
Koeppel owned his own business with a partner at age 21 – the Eye for Art gallery and frame shop on Spring Street in downtown Princeton. "We had exhibitions by local artists," he says, "and that seems to be a recurring theme in my own life." During this time he had a part-time position working on exhibits at the New Jersey State Museum, and since then has had a business transporting fine art.
During the 33 years that Bristol-Myers Squibb had a gallery, Koeppel was its art handler and was also involved in its operation. He expresses sadness that the gallery has closed, saying, "It was a magnificent gallery space, probably the best this area has ever seen."
Since selling the Queenstown Gallery, Koeppel has worked on a freelance basis, as curator for the D&R Greenway Trust, but also as exhibition coordinator for the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery, working with the curator, Kate Somers, the former curator of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Gallery. He has also done work for Morven, Rider College, and the College of New Jersey.
Koeppel has been involved in the land preservation movement for 10 years and is on the board of trustees of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. A graduate of Hopewell Valley Central High School, Koeppel was born, raised, and still lives in Pennington. "I started to get concerned with the loss of open space and spread of development, traffic, and sprawl," he says, "and I wanted to get involved and do something." His organization has preserved 3,500 acres in Hopewell Valley over its two decades in existence.
It was through his involvement with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space that he met Linda Mead, executive director at D&R Greenway, and ended up working with her to develop a division for the trust’s gallery. "It has been exciting to create a venue for art where there was none before, in a completely new space, and develop theme-based exhibitions, where there is a greater message beyond the art itself."
Koeppel curated two previous exhibits for D&R Greenway. "It’s a Bird’s Life" featured selected work from regional wildlife artists and coupled the artwork with scientific panels about protecting wildlife habitats – one of the trust’s mission. "The Road Not Taken" promoted healthy lifestyles by encouraging people to get out and hike in nature, "hopefully in some of our preserved properties where trails have been established," says Koeppel. For Koeppel, the show had to do with inspiration. "Many of us who like to walk or hike in nature derive inspiration from the serenity, peace of mind, and physical exercise," he says. "Artists are able to come back and express it creatively and hopefully inspire other people to do the same."
An eight-foot-long painting in the current show – "The Cruise" by Pennington artist David Biddle, now 85 years old – might serve as metaphor representing the mission of the D&R Greenway. It shows a gigantic sailing ship with people on each deck chit-chatting and blissfully focusing on their daily activities. On top of the mast, for example, is a dinner party. Both the viewer and the people on the shore, who are shouting warnings, can see that the ship is about to go over a waterfall. Says Koeppel: "He uses this as a metaphor for our planet – are we watching what we are doing, or are we about to go over the edge?"
"A Matter of Perspective: Our Personal Landscape," opening reception, Friday, February 8, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., D&R Greenway, Preservation Place, Rosedale Road. On view through March 21. Register. Free. The center’s hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but visitors are encouraged to call before coming to ensure that the gallery rooms are open. 609-924-4646.