News & Features » Miscellany

Philip Geiger's lush interior scenes are familiar yet strangely aloof.

Close to Home


Here's an artistic recipe for success: Take the painterly brushstrokes of Morisot; add the optical effects of Monet; mix in the intimacy of Vermeer; and top with the psychological ambiguity of Manet. Blend gently. The result? The works of Charlottesville painter, Philip Geiger, currently being exhibited at the Reynolds Gallery through March 31.

Geiger has mastered the contemporary version of Dutch genre painting. Genre painting, which reached its apex in the 16th and 17th centuries, is characterized by its subject matter — realistic, detailed scenes from everyday life. Often these scenes are fraught with subtext, both moralistic and symbolic. But it is at this juncture that Geiger departs from the traditional tenets of genre. While his interiors reveal psychological intensity, not only in the figures themselves, but in the manner in which the space is composed, they do not seem to be didactic or infused with an overbearing message.

All 14 paintings depict what appear to be the same rooms inhabited by the same people. In this series of new paintings, all created in 2000 and 2001, Geiger chose a familiar setting — his home — and filled it with his friends and acquaintances. They sit at tables, they drink tea, they hold children and lounge on sofas. What they do not seem to do is interact. Painted from life, there is an emotional detachment subtly enacted in the paintings through a look, a space or a gesture.

"Tilman Afternoon" employs a composition that Geiger seems to favor. Figures are pushed to the fringes and open space dominates in the center. To the right, one woman pensively stares with hands clasped, while another looks into a cloth bag. On the left, two men partake of drinks that are displayed on a covered table. In between, a large doorway gives the viewer access to a dining area that leads to a foyer. The prostrate form of a brown dog ties the spaces together like a bridge between inanimate objects and living forms. As in many of Geiger's pictures, the humans appear alienated and aloof, despite their intimate vicinity. Geiger's titles do not help decipher the narrative, if indeed, there is any. Perhaps trying to read a drama within these paintings is the wrong approach.

Beyond spatial ambivalence and human detachment, Geiger's paintings are vibrant studies in light and its effects within interior space. With loose, painterly brushstrokes, he uses peaches, blues, oranges and creams to portray light as it penetrates hardwood floors, Oriental rugs and opaque, chalky walls. Unlike impressionist painters, though, who intensely engaged with optical experiments in color and light, Geiger, like Morisot and Manet, stays within a naturalistic framework.

Despite allowing us to peer into these intimate scenes, the artist does not make us feel like voyeurs. Perhaps it is the room's sense of familiarity and openness, or maybe it is the figures' complete impassiveness. Or perchance it is the artist's dog who finds his way into several of the scenes that lends the space a sense of security and hominess.

These are easy paintings to like. They are comfortable in their interiority, earth-toned hues and broad, flowing brushstrokes. This is no accident. Geiger notes, "The subjects of my paintings are always close to home, the people and places of Charlottesville that I'm most familiar with." But they are not boring. Their slight psychological and equivocal edge keeps viewers guessing: What is happening here? The answer to this question, remarkably, is as distant and removed as the occupants they

Add a comment