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Art review: James Kroner at Karin Clarke Gallery

Karin Clarke is James Kroner's gallerist and one of his students. A show of Kroner's recent paintings marks the 20th anniversary of Karin Clarke Gallery in Eugene.


James Kroner’s Half Life of Dusk (SF) depicts a rainy city street in the moments just before nightfall. Gray tones dominate the oil on panel painting. The spots of color represent light produced by humans: emitted from a bus, cars, street lamps, and street signals. Our view is from the middle of the street. The one-point perspective draws the viewer toward an angled car near the center of the composition.  The car is either parking or leaving, or maybe waiting for someone. It’s a bit of a story for a painting that otherwise doesn’t have any people in it. 

James Kroner, Half Light of Dusk (SF). Image courtesy of Karin Clarke Gallery.

The people are implied. We assume there are passengers inside the vehicles and pedestrians walking in the shadows along the buildings but we can’t see any of them. If I had seen this painting previous to March 2020, I would have looked at it differently. But now I notice the lack of people. I asked Kroner if he intentionally left them out. 

No, he said he hadn’t even thought about it.

But Kroner does think plenty. Gallery owner Karin Clarke describes him as “a thinker.” She admires not only his skill but also approach, which includes keeping journals to note observations about process, philosophy or design. She is familiar with the way he works because Clarke isn’t just the owner of the Eugene gallery that represents Kroner—she is also one of Kroner’s students.    

“New Paintings: Urban and European Works,” on display until February 26, is artist James Kroner’s second solo exhibit at the Karin Clarke Gallery. He is new to the gallery and younger than the other artists Clarke represents by a generation.  

The gallery focuses primarily on Northwest landscapes and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. From the start, it has been a place to showcase the artwork of her parents’ generation, including her father, artist Mark Clarke (1935 – 2016) and mother Margaret Coe (b. 1941) who both studied art at the University of Oregon in the 1970’s. Mark Clarke later worked at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on campus. The artwork of both parents was recognized in a double retrospective exhibition at the JSMA in 2017-2018.   

James Kroner was born in 1978 which, coincidentally, is the year Margaret Coe received her MFA from the University of Oregon. Yet, it was Coe who introduced Kroner to her daughter, as she had introduced many other fellow artists in the past.

“Artists follow each other,” says Clarke, explaining how it happened. Her mother found Kroner while looking at new art online and began following his work. When he announced he was leading a painting workshop in Italy, Coe and Clarke both signed on and followed Kroner to Tuscany, where Clarke says she had a transformative experience as an artist.

Up to then she’d focused on her career as a gallerist, but taking the workshop in Italy something clicked and she felt herself emerged as a painter. After she returned from the trip, and worked more on her paintings, she gave herself her first solo show at her gallery.

I spoke to Clarke and Kroner separately but I’m sure he’d be pleased to know, if he doesn’t already, that his European workshop inspired Clarke to feel as if she’d finally come into her own as an artist. It’s fitting because it is the way that Kroner felt after taking his own first workshop abroad, and was his motivation for going on to teach the same workshops.

Kroner painting at Lake Como. Image courtesy of Karin Clarke Gallery.

Kroner graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco with an MFA in drawing and painting (2013). But as an undergraduate at the same art school, he’d been feeling blasé about painting. “Just going through the motions in class,” he says. Then he applied and received a full scholarship to a study abroad program in Italy. It was his first time out of the States. He traveled and worked in the area around Florence, looking at the art of the Renaissance artists he’d studied in San Francisco. Seeing the art of Michelangelo in reality, versus in reproductions, inspired him as did the culture, history and atmosphere of the streets. It was there he realized the potential that painting had. 

Other students taking the workshop used their evenings to party. But Kroner used his free time to paint on his own. He stayed outdoors working until 10pm because that’s how late it stayed light, he says, and he describes that experience as “life changing.” Afterward,  he kept in touch with the study abroad workshop organizer and painter, Jason Bowen, and returned to the program in 2014 as an instructor. He continued to lead workshops in Italy, Germany, and England until the pandemic required him to stop traveling in 2020.  

Plein air is about how what you see makes you feel, he says.

“Sitting for two hours in one spot, you notice that things are changing and moving.” He relates this perception to time-lapse imaging. Looking at a plant, it might seem still. But a time-lapse image of a plant reveals that change is almost constant. It’s this idea of motion that he finds so inspiring. To that end, he is fascinated with how light or weather can change a scene. And living and studying in San Francisco, he had plenty of opportunities to see a city under the influence of weather. When the fog comes in on the coast, he says, the moisture in the air is struck through with light.  

Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon
James Kroner, Survey North. Image courtesy of Karin Clarke Gallery.

Survey North is an oil painting on canvas and it is another street scene though this time the view is long and during the day. It’s a “high key painting,” says Kroner. There’s lots of light but it still has an atmosphere: “It’s not a totally clear sunny day.”

In San Francisco the young artist often looked for a hill top from where he could get a better view, see a larger piece of the scene, and perhaps some sky and water. Survey North looks down a steep street from a hill top. It’s a rollercoaster view with North Beach in the distance. You get the sense you’re about to coast down the hill and wind up in the water.  

Pacific Beach #2 is a relatively small format oil on canvas. When I look at this painting I see the elements that interest Kroner, as he describes them: “kinetics, light, and shadow.”

James Kroner, Pacific Beach #2. Image courtesy of Karin Clarke Gallery.

How do you capture a wave? The answer is you don’t. Nevertheless, this painting of the ocean is all about the constant change of waves. The paint moves too, between careful strokes and messy smears. The artist’s urban scenes are often realistic with an abstract edge, but this artwork has a looser touch. Perhaps because of its subject, it moves closer to abstraction.   

You might be thinking the fascination for catching light and motion has been addressed before, that it’s old news. Most familiar are the Impressionist painters from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries who eschewed traditional studio techniques in favor of trying to capture what they saw outdoors. To this objection, I respond with something I once heard a songwriter say: “How many songs are there about love?”

In other words, when will we have enough love songs?  As long as people fall in love they will be writing and singing about it. That’s how I think about landscape art, too. As long as artists are moved by what they see then they will continue to paint the land, and we will keep following them.

“James Kroner: New Paintings” is on view through February 26, 2022 at Karin Clarke Gallery: 760 Willamette St., Eugene, OR / Hours: Wednesday – Friday: 12 – 5:30; Saturday: 10 – 4

Ester Barkai is a freelance arts writer. She’s written for The Magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico and for Eugene Weekly in Eugene, Oregon. She got her start working for publications as a fashion illustrator in Los Angeles and then New York City. She has worked as an instructor teaching a variety of art history, drawing, and cultural anthropology courses.

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