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Roadside in the Eye

At the Millerton Moviehouse on October 10 at 5 pm., the opening reception for painter Jeffrey L. Neumann was packed—standing room only for viewing the half-hour documentary “Vanishing America.” This filmed tribute to his work, produced and directed by William L. Farrell of Farrell Video Productions, presented a biography of Neumann along with his recent paintings. Quite frankly, I expected to be bored by the documentary, but was enchanted, not only by the articulate, lively story line, but also by the attention to voice inflection by Neumann in the documentary. Farrell told me it took about twenty takes over about a year to edit the work into its polished surface. Farrell, who greatly impressed me, has completed many documentaries of painters.
Neumann, who now dwells in Hillsdale, has had an interesting life in advertising, travel, and fine paper design in addition to his commitments to folk and blues music (playing harmonica and jamming with some legendary players), and especially his sideline in drawing and painting. A cancer survivor, Neumann grew up with a love of roadside attractions on the two-lane highway, especially its vernacular architecture of charming downhome improvisation. Edward Hopper was his favorite painter since he was ten, and Hopper’s approach to deep emotional mood in Neumann’s paintings surge with oblique reverberation in its commentary on American Society, particularly where we have been in the past. His paintings hint at human behavior: popular food, sex, the ambiance of the pace of time, as well as cultural priorities.
Neumann valorizes the small town of what America was like before the sanitization of corporate architecture and soulless décor contributed to depersonalization. Usually what’s important in his paintings is what’s not there: the identity of people, the nuance and romance of a lost past of diners, motels, car-hops, ice-cream stands, burger and juke joints, blues halls. He emphasizes how time conjures memory in strange ways. To look at his paintings is to travel in time and see what this country once was and by implication what it is now. In retirement Neumann paints fulltime with a repertoire of riffs drenched in cultural resonance. Neumann paints primarily in oil, capturing the ironic rosy sunrise of dawn or the twilight, crepuscular, menacing edge of a world disappearing in bolder colors. In daylight paintings he often uses watercolor. What makes these paintings powerful remains an archetypal nuance in color and theme.
An attendee asked Neumann how do you feel when you see something you want to paint? Neumann replied that he knows right away when he sees something he wants to paint, yet there may be the old practical problem of not being able to do a painting on the spot. He takes photographs of what he wants to paint and works from them, yet the final product may not be the photograph he began working from, that the composition may demand removing a lamp post or adding some particular detail. The exhibit of Neumann’s paintings will run at the Moviehouse Gallery until January 16.