Dedicated, hard-working, sincere, generous, loyal, and genius…these are just a few of the words friends and fellow painters use to describe Ben Fenske (b.1978). This is an exhibit of Fenske and his circle of fellow painters. Fenske quietly continues to lead this generation of painters, meticulously advancing and adjusting his process to paint the beauty he witnesses around him in his actual life. “Fenske and Friends” Opening Reception will be from 5:30 – 7pm on Saturday February 29th at the Grenning Gallery, which is permanently relocated 26 Main Street in Sag Harbor. This exhibition will be on display through March 29th.
Fenske, is busy preparing for his solo show which opens on August 29th, 2020 treats us to a new mid-winter studio painting “Blue Teapot and Clementines”, coming directly after his successful debut museum show “Corpo a Corpo” at the Villa Bardini Museum, in Florence Italy.
I (Laura Grenning) first met Ben Fenske in the early 2000s during his first and only year at the Florence Academy of Art (FAA), when I was filming a documentary about the classical realist movement. I grabbed him as he was walking by to interview him on camera about what drew him to study classical techniques and was struck by his reluctance to wax on. Fenske answered in two to four-word sentences. Afterwards, I received intermittent emails from him over the next few years – of small, rough plein air, interior and portrait sketches. My response was that the work showed great promise, but could he please create a larger more finished painting? I later discovered that Fenske had been working full time in construction during that time, saving up money to get himself back to Florence. Flash forward to 2007, at the FAA Alumni show in the Corsini stables, like a bright beacon in a sea of sameness, Fenske’s landscape painting jumped off the wall with his accurate but expressive brushwork, filled with light and color. I immediately searched the crowd, found him and offered him a show on the spot. His first show was a big success and we have done a solo show every year since. Fenske is a “painter’s painter” as artists from all over the world buy and barter to get a painting by Fenske. Like the Moon’s anonymous influence on the tides, I’ve also witnessed a whole generation of atelier trained painters perk up and lean towards Fenske’s original and bold painting technique. This is a show that takes a snapshot of those tidal pools, where we can see the work of friends and fellow painters in Fenske’s circle right now.
Marc Dalessio (b. 1972), as one of several leading young realist painters in Florence in the early 2000s, was a breath of fresh air having left Charles Cecil school and moonlighting as a teacher at the FAA. Painting en plein air mostly and selling well in several galleries, magically making a living as an artist, Dalessio was generous with any interested student who wanted to paint en plein air after hours. Fenske gravitated towards Dalessio and ultimately shared the Piazzalle Donatello studio space with him for many years. Fenske and Dalessio have also been painting out of doors together for many years. I hosted them here on the East End together during the early summers…and they taught workshops together. According to Eric Rhoads, CEO of Streamline Publishing, Dalessio is one of the most important plein air painters in the world and he has a body of work to prove that. Although Fenske and Dalessio don’t share as much stylistically, they definitely share a very strong work ethic. Both artists are generally up and painting often at dawn and given their druthers would paint throughout the day until well after dark. Dalessio and Fenske have influenced each other’s paintings in subtle ways. Dalessio’s small sketches have loosened up, while Fenske’s has reached for the challenge of larger-scale works, and is seeking to bring them to a higher level of finish. As with all artists, the causality of their cross influence will remain mysterious. One fellow painter explained that Ben and Marc have become sort of like brothers, indispensable to one another but they fight and make up like most people’s holiday dinner tables. This painter went on to say “it’s been fun to watch, sometimes.“
Daniela Astone (b. 1980), one of the only actual Italians painting in this tradition, currently in Italy, is another leading light in this movement. Astone met Fenske during her first year at the FAA in 2002. She continues to paint and teach workshops with Fenske when time allows. She was an early influence on Fenske, and we are lucky to have a few recent paintings by this painter who sells mostly in Europe. Astone explains that she learned about using colors and to be more instinctive in her brushwork from Ben. When given the opportunity to use one word to describe her dear friend, she calls him “Orso” which means Bear in Italian.
Leo Mancini- Hresko (b. 1981) met Ben during his first year at the Florence Academy and he reports that Fenske’s expressive brush strokes combined with his accuracy, confounded his early student teachers. Mancini overhead a teacher joking with Fenske when he saw his first few paintings – saying that "Nude, Reflection" by Daniela Astone, 2019 Fenske should be critiquing his work rather than the other way around. Having already studied at an atelier in Minnesota, Fenske fast tracked his time at FAA, and stood out because he would be seen leaving school after class with his easel to go paint out of doors. Dedication to his work is one thing that Mancini-Hresko recognizes as something he has learned from Fenske, “I remember in 2006 or so my friend Rob Bodem said about Fenske, when we saw him walking out of a bar on Friday evening to work with his box easel while everyone else was drinking beers….”There it is, even if everyone else was off doing something else, looks like Ben would still be doing this”. We would also say that we have observed a Fenske-esque move towards colorist impressionist landscapes as well, as seen in “Codman Barn”. Also, in Leo’s Lobster Dock we see Fenske’s tendency to challenge oneself by painting directly into the light. Mancini-Hresko says that Fenske is on a very short list of people he would call in a crisis, and when asked to boil Ben down to one word he came back with “Very dedicated, very generous, and loyal towards his friends.” He also explains that although Ben appears grumpy and cantankerous – he is very lighthearted and has a great sense of humor.
Viktor Butko (b1978), Fenske’s Russian friend and fellow painter reports that when he first met Fenske in 2014 on a painting foray to Russia, he noticed that he wasn’t “making studies” but actually painting freely – experimenting with his paint. When asked how he has been influenced, Butko reports that his paintings became bolder and more colorful and that through Ben he has learned to draw and paint at the same time, claiming that now “it is possible to quickly “grab” the plot. Butko has become a regular on the East End, after the initial Russian American Painting Alliance trip in 2016 organized by Fenske and the Grenning Gallery. Generously sharing his painting spots and resources on the East End; Fenske has jumpstarted Butko’s career here in the US. Butko actually met fellow exhibiting artist friend and now wife, Kelly Carmody, on the first Russian American Painting Alliance trip in 2016. Butko’s “Cold Winds” and “Islander Boatyard” are delightful new local scenes, demonstrating his new freer and more colorful painting technique.
Kelly Carmody (b. 1977) met Fenske in 2012, during a painting workshop in Italy with Marc Dalessio and Daniela Astone. At that time, Carmody was an acclaimed portrait painter, working in a very traditional style. Upon her first sighting of a Fenske painting, Carmody claims “Honestly, I don’t think I understood them…” Since then, Carmody has broken away from her traditional, realist, academic aesthetic, and started painting looser, comprehensive constructions of the real world, outdoors. After marrying fellow painter Viktor Butko, Carmody has spent lots of time on the East End, painting local landscapes, en plein air, like “Silent Sen” (2020).
Tim McGuire, (b. 1971) was one of Fenske’s earliest friends and fellow painter, as evidenced by the many early portraits they did of each other. McGuire says that Fenske has always been very encouraging, and he has always been inspired by the emotional content in Ben’s simple and direct paintings. Fenske’s influence on McGuire’s style was irrefutable for years. Lately however, like the others, McGuire’s own fingerprint is shining through. McGuire is has charged up his palette, taking the colors well beyond nature’s dictates. We also see a path towards a more mystical, almost abstract response to his subject matter, which is usually the landscape of his new home in Nova Scotia. Obvious Fenske influence is seen in “Today on Main Street” while in “Harbor Evening” we see a new confidence as McGuire tweaks reality so that we can see through his eyes. In “Lilacs for Melanie” we see McGuire painting an outdoor figurative painting, which was clearly influenced by Fenske’s series of women under Olive Trees. “Green Room” and “Blue Bedroom” recall an early Fenske, which was no doubt inspired by Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” (1888).
Speaking of elegant little interiors, Amy Florence (b. 1989), who is a very close member of Fenske’s circle, exhibits several paintings of the interior and exterior of Fenske’s abode in Tuscany. This shows us where most of his painting takes place when he is Italy. Florence’s interiors and landscapes feel very Fenskesque with their strong colors and bold brushstrokes, yet her still life paintings show her distinctly more delicate eye and hand for detail. Florence is the painter of the powerful image on the banner “Ben Fenske” which is Fenske’s profile, as well as a full figure portrait of him in ”Portrait of Ben”.
Rachel Personett (b. 1991) met Fenske during her time at the FAA. She remembers Daniela Astone introducing her to Fenske, saying “Rachel meet Ben, he doesn’t have any friends, just like you; so you two can be friends…” and as an active, driven, paint-every-day pupil, Personett was quickly pulled into the Marc Dalessio, Leo Mancini, Ben Fenske painting vortex. Her academic training shines through in her very distinct and stunning florals, however, her approach to plein air landscape is distinctly influenced by Fenske, especially seen in “Matt Malloy’s” and the emotionally charged direct “Gallerist” painting.
Irina Rybakova (b.1962), is another highly respected and classically trained Russian painter that Fenske brought over in 2016. Fenske was drawn to her expressive brushwork, and she, his. In this show, her “Ben, North Haven” captures Ben painting en plein air, while “Main Street at Night’ is her most recentpainting of Sag Harbor – a place she would never have painted had she not met Fenske.
Ben Fenske has clearly made an impression upon contemporary realist painters. We hope to clarify the significance of Fenske’s both technical and emotional impacts on today’s artists, with this exhibition. Works on view represent real life, friendship, nature, and beauty. Finally, we will also include work from fellow Minnesota Native, and award-winning, now full-time plein air painter, Carl Bretzke (b. 1954), Local Sag Harbor painter, Maryann Lucas, and recent graduate of the FAA, Tina Orsolic Dalessio (b.1983).