Art Matters (Philadelphia), July 2000

"Prilla Smith Brackett: The Still and Surreal Woodland"
Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA


Inspired by the physical existence as well as the mystical dimensions of unspoiled forest life, Prilla Smith Brackett transforms various locales she has encountered out-of-doors into semi-abstract compositions buzzing with suspended stillness and surrealistic wonderment. Earlier precedents for her concentration on tree forms can be seen in pictures by such 17th century Dutch landscape painters as Meidert Hobbema and Jan van  Goyenas well as John Constable in England and Caspar David Friedrich in Germany, from 200 years later. Her work also calls to mind such American painters as George Inness and Ralph Blakelock and the impressionists: John Henry Twachtman, David Garber, Edward Redfield and Walter Elmer Schoefield.

Notable examples of her work, rendered in assorted media, make up a striking traveling exhibition currently installed in the Berman Museum of Art on the campus of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.It will remain there until July 23.

Exercising a primal level of internal response to woodland themes, Brackett structures arrangements of texture and pattern in which a facile hand and a determined drive to make order out of Mother Nature’s apparent chaos become images bristling with balanced harmony and rhythmic vitality. She also likes to think her pictures may alert spectators to the need for thoughtful conserving precious resources and protecting the land from greedy profiteers who would exploit the environment for their own selfish benefit. Frankly though, it’s hard to believe these efforts, no matter how well intentioned, will ever convince those who are not already in agreement with the viewpoint they propose.

“Remnants: Big Reed Reserve #6” is a soundly resolved configuration based on a jumble of fallen timbers, upright trees, silent rows of stone and glimpses of sky. One suspects the overall image would have fascinated no less a landscape painting master than Paul Cezanne.

Rather imposing in size, “Remnants: Communion #13” is a ten foot long, 42 inch high diptych in which different areas come together like disparate parts of a jigsaw puzzle. The unexpected intercutting and juxtaposition of entirely different images results in a curiously jarring complex of details that challenge the eye and the brain to bring them together in accordance with the artist’s intention. Thankfully, the time and effort it takes to do this results in a fairly rewarding encounter with what otherwise an initially baffling composite made up of contrasting perspectives.

“Silent Striving #3” is a curious alignment of eight separate 12 inch square panels installed in two parallel rows. Perhaps they are supposed to become a new kind of esthetic totality. Framing various observations made by the artist, each rectangle consists of thick impasto passages of oil paint brushed out in tones of pale turquoise, tan, gray and contrasting blacks. The individual configurations present nerve naked snippets of tree forms, details of houses and even references to chain link fencing. Though these miniature compositions ultimately fail to join each other as an effectively unified whole, the combined group – functioning like visuals in a TV story board – does fuse together not only as a suggestion for potential sequences in an animated film. Similar use could be made of the 12 – section layout called “Silent Striving #1.”

After several of her small studies for her larger work suggest, Brackett is at her best when she limits herself to essays in monochrome. While she lacks an eye for exceptional colorist invention, interpretation or transcription like Neil Welliver, for example, she does have a virtuoso’s command for blacks, grays and white. This special talent is richly reinforced when she introduces a dream-like sense of transparent overlap into different parts of her pictures. Appearing like broken glass, they float somewhere precariously over areas given a composition, adding a touch of macabre to her art.

Some of these reservations not withstanding, this is really a show well worth seeing. Adding to its fascination is the fact that every time you walk through the gallery you experience new insights into Brackett’s world you didn’t notice the last time around. Unlike artists whose pictures soon wear thin, she is able to sustain a viewer’s interest.


©Burton Wasserman 2000