Some artists — maybe all of them — revisit the history of painting like composer/musicians improvising original works based on familiar themes. For seven decades, Cleveland's Joseph O'Sickey has played the French modernist scale of colors and values — ranging from Bonnard's fleshy subtleties to the inventions of Matisse — with incomparable aplomb.
Though long well-known to Cleveland's relatively small arts audience, O'Sickey became more widely admired following his first solo show, at the Akron Museum in 1962. That same year, he earned the Cleveland Museum of Art's Best Painting award in its annual May Show — though his first May Show inclusion was in 1938, and he was to win Best Painting three more times in 1964, 1965 and 1967. After winning the prize the first time, he signed a contract with Seligmann Galleries in New York.
In fact, O'Sickey has been one of Cleveland's best-known contemporary painters, educators and designers for more than 40 years, showing frequently in New York and even more often around Northeast Ohio. Most of that time, Cleveland Heights' venerable Vixseboxie Gallery has represented his work. In the Light at Bonfoey Gallery is his first exhibit at the area's other longest-running commercial gallery.
With paintings, watercolors and drawings upstairs and downstairs, there's a lot to see. No one could ask for a more appropriate and welcoming garden of images to visit on an autumn day. Though O'Sickey has worked in a number of different manners, his dominant mode owes much to the visual fragmentation often associated with post-impressionism — Vuillard's obsessive patterning, Bonnard's atmospheric shifts and changes in perspective, and the syncopated integration of figure and ground typical of Matisse, a dance resembling the constant movement of light and shade on a wind-stirred autumn day. Many of O'Sickey's works, especially the larger ones, are as richly colored and complex as a Middle-eastern textile. They offer a magic-carpet trip through his own back yard near Kent, transfigured by a lifetime spent in the contemplation of line, color and composition.
Though gardens and flowers have pride of place, the unusual selection of works gleaned from a bewildering wealth of canvases and works on paper stored in his studio include many other subjects and several quite different styles. At 91, O'Sickey continues to paint five hours a day. Zoos and circuses, as well as the fauna of our own woods and fields, have often inspired the painter. They also remind us that O'Sickey, born in 1918, was first educated by the earlier generation of the Cleveland School.
Painters like Paul Travis, Viktor Schreckengost, Carl Gaertner, William Somers and their sometime associate Charles Burchfield all have left recognizable marks on O'Sickey's choices. There are tigers in this world, and horses and elephants and many birds — especially owls. Decide for yourself whether O'Sickey's "Snow Owls" in a small ink study are more imbued with life's mysteries than the giant eyes of flowers in the oil-on-canvas "Vases of Sunflowers." Both are haunting.