A Song from the Wood: Charles Yoder’s Nocturnes : by Christopher Sweet

January 2014

To take one painting from a group of related works, Rhythm in Blues is a sweeping view of a small expanse of woodland near where a snow-covered terrain falls away, tracing a dramatic diagonal across the breadth of the canvas, a sort of languid bend sinister, while streaks of moonlit snow shoot across the ground, through a stand of trees, dark verticals of bare trunk, alternating with swathes of shadow in opposing diagonals creating a spreading chevron effect. The snow cover is pocked and clumpy in the foreground, more marbled in the distance. Beyond the lip of earth, the soft brushy collar of a lower, farther tree line hugs the lower reach of the subsiding left-right diagonal, and above it in the upper left quadrant of the painting glows a vaporous night sky with a distant opalescent moon hovering behind the trees. In the upper right corner of the painting all falls into the shadow of heavy foliage. The alternating lights and darks, the shifting spaces and solids, the striking dark vertical solid bars, slender or sturdy, the chill atmosphere, and the somber mood of the night hour propound a powerful, vigorous, yet controlled vision. One hears the roar of silence, one feels the internal combustion of solitude.

The painting is panoramic yet without a vista. It remains intimate. The space is close, undercover, notwithstanding any glimpse of a beyond. One is as present as a viewer may project, nothing is so far away, but the atmosphere is cool, aloof, and yet telling. There is a sense of moment. Still, the artist is not telling us what to think. There is no moral, no narrative, though there is expectation. The sound track does not cue to mystery or malevolence or something more benign or sentimental. Charles Yoder is asking us to ponder painting hung on the scaffold of a forest, where trunk, limb, branch and twig, stem and leaf, are a profusion of painterly gestures. The rendering is highly graphic and the atmosphere redolent. Mood and tone prevail. The natural forms give abstraction an object. The title reminds us that the nocturne was first a musical term before Whistler appropriated it and others to underline the abstract, formal qualities inherent in his work.

This painting is a kind of stalker’s dance. Though in nature trees may bend and groan, the wind may whisper, movement may be furtive, here all is stock still and silent as a painting is, but as if in the fatal pause before the pounce. For Yoder the elusive insight is the prey, the thoughts of a painter painting. And for the artist, it came in the night, standing in the woods, his painterly epiphany that the forest all around him was sufficient premise for painting.

Yoder tends to paint from within the forest with only the occasional clearing or sketch of a path, looking through the woods at nothing in particular or down at the ground or up at the clouds, trading the thicket then for a maelstrom. His sky pictures though are always anchored by the silhouette of a tree line. In the nocturnes, Yoder uses the white of moonlight and snow and cloud to heighten contrast and illuminate forms and unify the overall all-over composition. The paint is dry, the color is flat, the contrasts are high. Twachtman used snow to dissolve the image, whereas Yoder punctuates the white with the dark umber of the woods to maintain the rigor of the edge. Up close the image surely fails, the forest quickly becomes a tangled rhythmic lattice. There is no attempt to reproduce surfaces and minor details other than calligraphic cursives and natural patterns, and yet the variety of effects is stunning, even as the overall body of work is unified.

Whether one feels the threat of darkness and isolation or the balm of solitude and stillness,

Yoder’s landscape is agnostic. There is no religious allegory, no sturm und drang, no manifest destiny, no apparent manifesto of any kind other than the absorption in the solitary purposes of painting or of a walk in the woods alone at night. These works signal a withdrawal into one’s own thoughts. They are meditations in paint and personal and yet with a healthy detachment, tuned to the utter indifference of nature, and so leaving plenty of room for his viewers. Poets from Shakespeare to Frost have pondered the winter forest at night in tenebrous meditations on loss and mortality. And indeed one may ponder the transitory nature of life, the inevitability of death, in the meantime one may walk and look thoughtfully and anticipate a warm bed in due course.