Paradise found

John Moore, "A Fine Fall Day"John Moore, "A Fine Fall Day," 2008, oil on canvas

As a child, John Moore would play in the vacant back lots of factories in Wellston, a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. It’s a neighborhood Moore compares to Kensington and North Philadelphia—the kind of places “where there’s a mix of manufacturing and residential all kind of juxtaposed together.”

And while Moore, the Monroe and Edna Gutman Professor of Fine Arts at Penn and the outgoing chair of the Department of Fine Arts, left Wellston long ago, its memory remains with him, and influences his work.

That influence can be seen in “Thirteen Miles from Paradise,” an exhibit of 16 of Moore’s industrial paintings, which opens April 11 at the Arthur Ross Gallery.

The exhibit’s name references Coatesville, a city located literally 13 miles from Paradise, a rural town in Lancaster County. Coatesville, once home to the longest operating steel mill in America, has been a muse for the artists Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler. It’s captivated Moore, too.

Attending a retrospective on Crawford in 1986 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Moore remembers stepping off the elevator and seeing Crawford’s splendid “Steel Foundry, Coatesville (1936).” Moore was so taken by the work that he later traveled to the town to see if he could find the exact site from which Crawford had painted, which he did.

He returned in 2007. The paintings in “Thirteen Miles From Paradise” depict the changes Coatesville has seen since.

Moore is not new to industrial scenes. He’s painted gritty landscapes from Ohio to Pennsylvania and once spent a summer in the late 70s painting on a balcony overlooking a crumbling manufacturing district in Philadelphia. He says a “mix of things” led to his interest in industrial landscapes, including his own personal history and associations with a particular place.

“When I first went to Coatesville, it was initiated by my interest in the fact that other American artists had been there, but also because the first time that I went there, I thought, ‘I know this place. I know what this is like,’” Moore says. “I just really felt a connection to the place that was more unique than any other place that I had been or other places that I had been working.”

Moore is a realist painter who combines the visual aspects of precisionism with social commentary. Arthur Ross Gallery Director Lynn Marsden-Atlass says he has a “remarkable visual eye.”

She has been a fan of his since the 1980s and, while associate director and registrar at the Colby College Museum of Art, was instrumental in bringing one of his works, “Night Vision,” to the museum.

“I was particularly struck by the difficulty of painting an industrial landscape at night,” she says.

The canvases in “Thirteen Miles from Paradise” may look like exact recreations, but they are actually “composites” that set a scene and tell the history of the area.

Sixteen paintings are included in the exhibit, the majority of which are Coatesville-based. The four “workscapes” at the heart of the show—“Winter Light,” “Stillwater: Spring,” “Sunday Evening: Summer” and “A Fine Fall Day”—are 90-by-75 inches and depict Coatesville in the past couple of years.

“A Fine Fall Day” features a brightly colored peacock resting on a leafless tree on top of a hill. The peacock may seem out of place, but it is historically accurate. Moore befriended a gentleman whose great-great grandfather founded Coatesville. The gentleman relayed a story about visiting his cousins as a child, when he recalled seeing peacocks running around the lawn.

Coatesville, like a boxer in his mid-30s, is well past its prime. Some of the mill structures have been demolished and, like much of the American manufacturing industry, jobs have moved elsewhere.

The serial arsonists plaguing Coatesville have also affected the landscape. One of Moore’s earliest paintings shows a red brick building in front of a large factory complex.

“I liked that immediately because this building is kind of a survivor,” he says. “It had been there and gradually everything else is gone.” But on his most recent visit, the building had plywood in its windows, having fallen victim to arsonists.

Moore says the biggest change he has seen in the two-decade gap between visits has been the arrival of condos, retirement communities and gated communities overlooking the main mill complex.

“It’s really become in some ways kind of a far suburb of Philadelphia and Chester County,” he says. “The contrast between these townhouses, which are being promoted as luxury townhouses with a ‘mill view’ as opposed to luxury townhouses with an ocean view—it’s become a picturesque thing.”

“Thirteen Miles From Paradise” runs from April 11 to June 14. For more information, visit www.upenn.edu/ARG or call 215-898-2083.

Originally published March 5, 2009

Originally published on March 26, 2009