Bright lights, big city: Urban Show at Piknik

Sumner Silverman takes in scenes of urban life that filled the studio annex at Piknik. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

It’s hard to imagine how an exhibition of urban-themed paintings can provide a breath of fresh air on Martha’s Vineyard in mid-August, but gallerist Michael Hunter’s annual Urban Event at Piknik Art & Apparel in Oak Bluffs does just that.

There are traffic jams and skyscrapers, rooftop vistas and pedestrians with umbrellas. There is frenzy and calm, too many people and too few, rivers, landmark buildings and signage, vibrant colors and muted tones. And as if that’s not enough, there’s even a monitor displaying seven short films shot in New York City. It’s all under one roof as 14 artists from across the U.S. exhibit their interpretations of city life from now through September 11.

Mr. Hunter has assembled a roster of both familiar and new artists. Art enthusiasts who frequent the gallery will recognize the names of Max Decker, Traeger diPietro, Anne McGhee, Tom Stephens and newcomer Nate Praska, while others such as Paul Norwood, Adam Thompson, and Ellen Liman return exclusively for the Urban Event.

New artists for this year’s show include Mr. Praska, Sherry Blalock, Jorge Columbo, Gregory Coutinho, Sharon Florin, Brett Jackson, and Jack Ryan.

The work ranges from large-scale oils to small watercolor studies and pen-and-ink illustrations, from the abstract to the figurative. Jorge Columbo’s series of seven short “Urban” films are shot with a Fuji still camera, edited specifically for Piknik, with sounds created by the artist in GarageBand. The series is available on a signed, limited edition CD.

Now in its fourth year, the Urban Event has evolved, according to Mr. Hunter, out of “pure selfishness.” Born in Manhattan, he says he began to select urban images from artists because they feel meaningful and compelling to him.

“I do the show because I think it gives people a chance to step back from their experience on the Vineyard,” he says. “It allows them to see the urban landscape more clearly from a fresh perspective and to appreciate it differently.”

Apparently, he’s on to something. The turnout for the show’s opening in conjunction with the Oak Bluffs District Art Stroll on Saturday evening, August 14, was his largest ever, and sales were brisk.

“Openings aren’t really about the red dots on the wall anymore, although a number of pieces did sell,” Mr. Hunter says. “They’re more about people coming to see the work and enjoy the event. Many buyers come back at a quieter time to make purchase decisions.”

Anne McGhee, a painter who divides her time between the Vineyard and Boston and teaches drawing and painting at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, finds Piknik’s Urban Event to be an ideal showcase for her Fenway Park series of figurative oil paintings. Her work is inspired, she says, by Italian artist Piranesi, and explores the structure and infrastructure of the historic venue. While she paints other genres, the Urban Event affords her an opportunity to share her view of Fenway, its unique architecture and energy.

“I like the fact that Michael is showing atypical Vineyard work although I paint the landscape here as well,” Ms. McGhee says. “I used to live in New York, and Piknik feels like a New York gallery more than what we’re accustomed to on the Island.”

Ellen Liman, a lifetime artist and seasonal Vineyard resident, has also found a home for her — as she puts it — “quirky figurative urban work that pushes the envelope.” A resident and gallery owner in Palm Beach, Ms. Liman says she appreciates the uniqueness of Michael Hunter’s vision. “I had seen the quality of work that he shows at Piknik and I feel flattered to be included.”

New York City native and urban realist painter Sharon Florin is making her Island debut at the gallery this month. Her oil on canvas works depict streetscapes and the contrast of new and old, often using the reflective glass of contemporary buildings to mirror architecture of the past. A professional artist for over 30 years, Ms. Florin says she is fascinated by city life, architectural detail, and capturing older buildings before they are lost.

“My ‘Reflection’ paintings are more abstracted and allow me to play with forms, shapes and distortions,” she explains. “I’ve lived in the city my whole life but I’m constantly discovering something new.”

On opening night, hundreds of art patrons also discovered “something new” as they browsed through Piknik’s collection of both haunting and harried representations of urban life.

It is a reminder of what many of us have left behind, as well as what many of us return to at summer’s end. In its own artful way, the annual Urban Event also serves as a subtle evocation of what we treasure most about the Vineyard.

The fourth annual Urban Event at Piknik Art & Apparel runs through September. Arts District, 99 Dukes County Avenue, Oak Bluffs. 508-693-1366.