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Jyl Benson and Sam Hanna
Pelicans v. Pistons
Iles of Light
Bill Iles' Transcendental Forests
Painter Bill Iles reigns in Southern terrain to controlled, comprehensive and complex works. His oil paintings depict forest scenes of Southwestern Louisiana, inspired by the land around Lake Charles and Dry Creek, the small town where he was born.
Those who have ventured out of New Orleans and had the chance to see Southern fall landscapes will appreciate his body of work showing in March at the Cole Pratt Gallery (3800 Magazine St.)
Featured in the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities publication A Unique Slant of Light: the Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, Iles is a prolific artist with a secure spot in our country’s perspective of the natural world. However, he does not leave the viewer with any lofty impressions. Kind and open, he has a generous personality and thoughtful perspective on his life work.
“Our ability to see is such a precious gift,” he says. And it’s easy to see how much he has devoted his life to this gift. On the day he delivered his paintings to the gallery, we talked about light and vision. It’s clear that his eyes are as important a tool to him as his brush. His paintings deal a lot with perception and putting down human vision into concrete images.
We talked about how when the daylight is fading, and there’s barely any light left in the sky. It’s really our imagination that gives color to the outline of grass and trees, he said.
“We think we see more color than we actually do,” he said.
The muted blues and greens of the bark of the trees in Late Autumn are a good example of this phenomenon, and in Dusk falls on the Winter Woods he pushes the palette almost to the point of being monochromatic.
Repetitive and meditative, his color palette and composition express a certain serenity that doesn’t actually exist in reality. Given the complexity and often unideal nature of life, his work aims to harmonize the chaos of the woods. His emotional attachment to these scenes stems from his childhood in the woods of Lousiana, where his father would take him hunting.
Unwilling to shoot the animals, he would “hide out” in a corner of the woods, observing. These formative years were the beginning of a life-long exploration of wilderness. In a press release issued by the Cole Pratt Gallery, Iles quotes Emerson’s essay On Nature: “In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
Iles is heavily influenced by transcendental thought, and like other artists before him like Poussin or William Morris, he seeks to make sense of reality by creating a harmonious and balanced image.
The “line of the horizon” that Emerson wrote about is a significant reference for Iles to choose. Unlike many other landscape artists, who begin their work by painting the background sky or water, Iles intuitively starts his paintings with the foreground image, like the way our eye works. In a few of his paintings, like "Embankment Viewed from the Creek," we have to concentrate and struggle to make out the brush and trees before we arrive in the distance.
In a 2010 article for myneworleans.com, John R. Kemp writes of Iles: “Muted beech trees in the foreground of his paintings act almost as barriers that viewers must breach before emerging into the distant sunlight and bright colors.”
Looking at his work definitely requires a certain amount of time and focus because his vegetation sometimes borders on abstraction. The reward of doing this is stepping back and making sense of the assembly of colors and textures, and realizing that there are some bigger pictures in the horizon of Iles’ paintings.
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