Gail and Ernst von Metzsch of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., have been collecting works by Boston-area contemporary representational artists for more than three decades.
"They look at the same things I'm looking at," says Ernst von Metzsch. "It's something I can associate with, but they see it differently."
The von Metzsch collection is the focus of a new exhibit at New Britain Museum of American Art. It is the last special exhibition initiated by former museum director Doug Hyland, who retired last year.
The museum's new director, Min Jung Kim, praises the von Metzsch collection for its depth, focusing not on many artists but just a few dozen, and collecting multiple pieces from each. "They helped to cultivate and nurture these artists' careers," Kim says.
The collection has a sizable representation of New England images: George Nick's Newbury Street scenes and his unsentimental "Charlestown Thanksgiving"; Thomas Paquette's "Quiet Bay," painted in Maine; Scott Prior's "Yellow Chair," a peaceful rendering of Northampton in autumn; Richard Raiselis' "Equinox," of Boston's Custom House Tower; Ed Stitt's serene "173 Marlborough Street." Richard Sheehan created the first two paintings Ernst von Metzsch bought, "Summer Street, Hyde Park" and "Dana Variety," both of them simple but intensely colorful suburban streetscapes.
However, several exceptional pieces in the exhibit aren't views of Boston or New England. A spectacular standout is a symbol of Boston's hated rival, Yankee Stadium, in the midst of its demolition.
"I knew when I looked at it that I would have to be a madman to paint it," artist Joseph McNamara says. "It took me eight months. I just got lost in the painting, almost like a trance state."
McNamara went to the Bronx to photograph the interior of the old stadium when it was in ruins, being carted away load by load by trucks and dumpsters, the concrete blocks piled up in what used to be the outfield. Using source material from 17 photos, he created a meticulously detailed image of a once-mighty coliseum brought low by the demands of the marketplace. Even Red Sox fans will become fascinated and oddly nostalgic by the unusual view of the House that Ruth Built in its death throes.
McNamara brings the same level of realism to several other pieces in the show, but despite the precision of his style, he prefers not to describe himself as a "photo realist." He points out that a truck and two pieces of machinery in the center of the stadium composition came not out of photos but out of his imagination. And McNamara leaves pencil grid marks underneath the paint visible in the finished product. Nonetheless, McNamara's attention to realistic detail prompted Hyland to dub him "a modern-day Canaletto."
Two delightful oils-on-canvas by Paul Rahilly could be seen as riffs on the genre of still life. Elements of conventional still life are there — cut fruit, bottles, flowers, vases, serving dishes — but are subordinate to images of women in untidy rooms. In "The Violinist," a model with an explosion of red hair lounges on a sofa surrounded by clutter. In "Figures with Rolled Paper," two nude ladies pose next to the still life table, in front of an ugly set of drapes and a shiny garbage can and next to large rolls of torn paper on the floor.
Ben Aronson, who creates street scenes in New York, Paris and San Francisco, uses a style that is a curious combination of specific and vague. Steve Hawley's Italian cityscapes are visual challenges, with attention-grabbing images on both sides of the compositions.
Gerry Bergstein's two pieces come out of nowhere, both wild, imaginative and almost spooky visions of a world gone haywire. Joseph Barbieri's two paintings stand out in a different way, both fanciful portraits of imaginary creatures, which look like ducks but may be Barbieri himself.
Ernst von Metzsch has a little fun by contributing one piece of his own, a reimagining of the 1941 Edward Hopper piece "Route 6 Eastham." Von Metzsch's "Route 6 Eastham, 10 Minutes Later," places a cop on a Harley on the lonely road running past the white houses.
Other artists are Eric Aho, Bernard Chaet, Robert Ferrandini, Linda Holt, Sedrick Huckaby, John Imber, Andy Karnes, Catherine Kehoe, Janet Monafo, Thomas Paquette, Alston Purvis, Harold Reddicliffe, Sarah Supplee, Suzanne Vincent, Julia von Metzsch Ramos, John Walker, Jeff Weaver and Lucette White.