Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's 1937 summer house for department-store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann and family, has been much photographed but little painted. Until, that is, Felix de la Concha, a former resident of Pittsburgh currently dividing his time between Iowa City and his native Spain, accepted the invitation to an extended residency with unprecedented access to the building and grounds.
De la Concha has exhibited widely in Pittsburgh as well as elsewhere, and his One a Day: 365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning, a grand cycle of paintings permanently displayed in the accessible top-floor lobby of Pitt's Alumni Hall, is an underknown treasure. Take the hint.
De la Concha rose to the Fallingwater challenge, and it turned out to be an inspired pairing yielding Fallingwater en Perspectiva, a series of 50 paintings that's been touring for the past few years before landing at Concept Art Gallery.
De la Concha can be described as a realist painter, which is correct but somewhat misleading. His is a generally modern, hybrid style tapping into what can be more accurately termed the "reality effect." De la Concha's approach is relatively accurate in color and form, with an emphasis on the feel of time and place, and the works often surprisingly loosely painted. (Scaled down for reproduction, as with this review, his work looks far tighter than it is.) The artist is not obsessed with detail throughout nor with recreating photographic realism, and many passages in his paintings lean toward impressionism. The results are at once familiar and fresh.
De la Concha painted undauntedly en plein air in all seasons and conditions, a demanding approach that is not widely practiced but which can be essential in registering subtleties of light and appearance. In "West Window at Sunset," warm light streaming into the room highlights the tops of the furniture in an otherwise cool and shadowy interior, capturing a moment in the daily cycle. The palette here as throughout the exhibit is mid-century, with expanses of earth tones punctuated by brightly colored accents consistent with Wright's choices.
A key element of de la Concha's style is that he gives the sketchy treatment to many a patch of carpet or flagstone or foliage, crisping an edge here and there and daubing on highlights to make a hearth fire or a tray of bottles leap forward. The interiors feel mundane while posh in a modern way, yet intimately experienced, as if the viewer just glanced up from reading a newspaper; anything remotely resembling realism is a space into which we can project ourselves as if present. This intimacy reflects de la Concha's painterly skill and effort, and also testifies to the access granted to the artist in what is in fact a house museum.
While highlighting the waterfall and landscape within which the house and outbuildings are sited, de la Concha's emphasis is generally on the architecture and interiors, giving full play to the merging of nature and culture, of inside and outside, for which Fallingwater is justly renowned. The space depicted in many of the paintings is geometrically bold, with rectangles often solidly aligned yet with many an acute angle pointed toward the viewer. To play off against the straight lines, de la Concha makes use of the sweeping curves that Wright provided in stairwells and terraces and pools, while also not tidying up the slightly rumpled furniture, producing textural contrast and a touch of implied human presence.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is "Great Room Panorama," an immodest and remarkable 34-footer of eight overlapping canvases. Each panel is a fully realized work, yet fitted together, they form a 360-degree you-are-there experience, but one in which the mostly askew panels and imperfectly aligned images highlight the artifice in its making. Such works reference reality, they don't attempt to stand in for it.
As a paean to Wright's achievement, de la Concha's series of paintings depicts Fallingwater as living history, site-specific but ever-changing, a case study in preservation. De la Concha set out to engage in a dialogue with this icon of upper-class domesticity, not transgress it. Conceptually it's not new ground, but his rigorous practice of painting on site is inseparable from the subtlety and drama these paintings achieve. You have to respect an artist who's willing to paint standing on a ladder in the snow if that's the only way to get what he's after.
FALLINGWATER EN PERSPECTIVA continues through Jan. 15. Concept Art Gallery, 1031 S. Braddock Ave., Edgewood. 412-242-9200