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Real magic Burchfield-Penney chronicles changes in local artist

Virginia Cuthbert lived in Buffalo from 1941, when she arrived here from Pittsburgh with her artist-husband Phillip Elliott, to her death in 2001 at 93. A teacher and respected painter, she gathered a large following locally, and as her style matured her cityscapes attracted a burst of national attention in the '40s and '50s.

Burchfield-Penney Art Center's small selection of her paintings -- the show is made up of eight canvases and two works on board -- dramatically illustrate a young painter's progress from a hesitant, derivative artist to a sound realist who often would charge her paintings with an uneasy psychology.

In the late '30s and early '40s, Cuthbert was still working her way out of a limited anecdotal style with a self-conscious "American" flavor. Everybody in "Ziggie's Barber Shop" (1938) -- including the dogs hanging around outside the shop -- are character studies, picturesque types caught in the act of living their everyday lives. Even with its frank portrayal of common folk, the painting always seems about to veer into social commentary.

"Coal Dumper," done three years later and the first painting that Cuthbert did after her arrival in Buffalo, shows a grim, no-nonsense portrayal of the Buffalo Harbor. The artist seems to be fighting an urge to romanticize the industrial landscape, going out of her way to play up the leaden water and inert machinery. Both paintings, though not without charm, are executed in an almost off-handed way, as though the artist were indifferent to the expressive effect of painting handling. And both are flimsily constructed with little regard for structure and composition.

Sometime in 1941, Cuthbert threw off all that vagueness and executed a crisp, spatially clear "Self-Portrait." Here the artist is shown standing deep in the space of her studio. She is solidly rendered, her head conveying a convincing roundness, while the foreground is populated by an orderly chaos of bottles, frames, debris and paint tubes.

In the early '40s Cuthbert gave a nod to the 17th century Dutch painters of interiors, with some help from Matisse's treatment of the theme. Fittingly, the two paintings -- "Interior" and "Archie in a Victorian Setting" -- feature Archie, a cute wavy-haired dog whose dumb stare and cuddly presence ensure the domestic tranquility of the scenes.

But then it was off into the odd world of magic realism. By 1944 Cuthbert had hit her stride with "City Street." Magic realism is a vague term usually denoting a kind of convincing realism studded by surrealist elements. (Cuthbert was studying in Paris when the surrealists were gaining notoriety.)

Hints of Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian painter of haunted cityscapes, show up in this quietly bizarre work. The perspective rushes inward, seemingly dragging a fleeing figure and an endless facade with it. In the street in the foreground an ordinary postcard stand takes on an unreal quality because of the strange treatment of the postcards: images of Niagara Falls, a standing buffalo and other tourist themes are done in strident, utterly unnatural colors.

Like many magic realist works, "City Street" projects a stirred-up nostalgia with a decidedly unsettled mood. Cuthbert wasn't the tourist agent's friend: Any tourist wandering into this benighted street would not linger for long.

As late as 1956, in a lovingly composed painting called "This Side of Brooklyn," Cuthbert was still exploiting magic realism, perhaps a little half-heartedly. But in 1952, there was a relaxation of any surreal impulses when she painted the imposing "The Quiet Street."

With its young girl half-hidden in a doorway, this painting still clings to a sense of dimly pained longing. But the uncanny mood of magic realism is banished by the majestic arrangement of light and shadow. The light falls at a steep angle on the facades, creating complex patterns of cast shadows, which the artist regulates precisely with an eye to the whole.

"The Quiet Street" is a powerful example of a lucid, well-grounded realism. It speaks clearly and plainly and may be Cuthbert's masterpiece.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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