Key West, Florida

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Copyright 2009 Gallery on Greene
606 Greene Street____ ____Key West, Florida 33040____ ____(305) 294-1669____ ____Open 10-6 daily
By Ann Landi

In the first half of the last century, there existed a number of artists who came to be called American Scene painters or American Regionalists. The best-known representatives of that trend - which could hardly be called a group or a movement - included Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and Thomas Hart Benton. With the rise of Abstract Expressionism and other avant-garde tendencies in the 1950s, critics and art historians tended to turn their backs on these extremely talented chroniclers of American small-town life, dismissing them as hopelessly provincial and out of step with the Modernist mainstream. But over time the tides of fortune and opinion have a way of shifting, and these same painters are now highly regarded among collectors and studied in depth by art historians.

What these artists shared in common was a love of the everyday and a delight in the people and landscape of their immediate environs-impulses that stem directly from the great French Impressionists. These are the strains that animate the work of Peter Vey, who makes his home in Key West, Florida, and has been directly influenced by the tropical seductions of that magical place. As anyone who has visited there knows, Key West is the southernmost point in the Continental United States and a town of lovingly preserved enchantments that put it at a remove from the overbuilt and over-bulldozed development of the rest of the state. Aside from its abundant natural beauties-lush vegetation, white-sand beaches, sparkling waters, and breathtaking skies at all hours-the town boasts some of the most intriguing architecture anywhere in the form of the famous "conch" houses built by early settlers.

These are the pleasures of Key West living that Vey, a regional painter in the best sense of the term, celebrates in canvases that are as dazzling as his surroundings. Curiously, Vey came to his subject and technique through a roundabout route. He grew up in northern New Jersey, close enough to the city to visit its outstanding museums with some frequency, and visited Florida often because his grandparents were residents of Palm Beach. After studying art and art history at Duke University, he spent several years during the 1980s working in an abstract expressionist approach somewhat reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler and other second-generation members of the New York School. None of these survives, and he eventually reached a dead end with the kind of stain paintings he'd been pursuing.

But what did stay with him was a love of the spontaneity that makes his realist work so strikingly fresh. Though he now uses primed instead of raw canvas and works with a palette knife, quick decisions are still essential to his process. Once it sets, the oil pigment can't be pushed around further or overloaded with more color or the results will turn muddy. Vey uses only one tool, an artist's mixing knife, but coaxes it to yield both the finest of lines and flat expanses of pure hue. He begins by making a loose sketch, to nail down the composition, and then builds up a picture area by area, much like the Renaissance fresco painters, who also needed to work quickly because their efforts would dry by the end of a day. His larger works are completed in the studio, sometimes using photographs as an aide-memoire, but he also works outdoors from the flatbed of his truck, making quick sketches that help him capture the light on the spot.

Vey first began visiting Key West in the '80s, attracted by the lifestyle and the architecture, and over time he has built up a repertoire of subjects that are as recognizably familiar to the area and its inhabitants as Gauguin's Tahitian themes are to that island. The artist has spoken of Winslow Homer as an influence, and in his scenes of water and sky and boats-such as 90 Miles from Cuba, Cat Boat, and Bright Summer Day-there is a similar talent for capturing the bright washed-out light of the tropics. Light was also the primary concern of the Impressionists, Monet in particular, and it was this group of painters that first discovered that shadows are never really gray or black but can be composed of tones of dark blue or green and broken down to animate the surface in a way unknown to previous artists (consider, for instance, the pinks and blues that indicate the shady side of the boats in Boatyard Blues).

Vey seems closest in spirit to both the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists in his exuberant still lifes, and his floral paintings often approach the spirit of van Gogh without the neuroses or the angst. He also has a talent for painting coconuts and palm trees, imbuing those humble trees, which have become among the most clichéd emblems of tropical living, with a verve and drama that's right up there with the best abstractions of our times.
But his keen intelligence as a painter may be most in evidence in his pictures of Key West's incomparable architecture. What makes a painting like Armory (the building where Vey has his studio) really sing is the careful attention to crisp lines, cool shadows, and just the right touches of bright color to give the building as much character as the portrait of a person. And notice how Turret with Shutters comes to life because of flashes of orange under the shutters and the hints of bright red in the palm trees; it's also a tricky composition, nearly bisected by a tall skinny palm trunk, with the loosely handled vegetation on the right competing for your attention with the solid architecture on the left.

To those who might accuse him of being too much of a "feel-good" painter, too cheerful to be really serious, Vey, who is as laid-back and upbeat as his paintings, has an easy but apt response: "There's plenty of art that throws you into an introspective tailspin," he says. "I like to celebrate life. That's important to me."

Click Here to view Peter Vey's
Fine Art Reproductions
Cruzin, 10 x 8
On the Beach 24 x 24
Nutty Bougainvillea, 40 x 50
Down Island 40 x 50
Key West Light 48 x 36
Key West Nuts 48 x 60
Cuba Libre 50 x 40
Peter Vey
Cruzin El Faro 48 x 12
Morning Call, 9 x 6
Bait Fishing, 48 x 24
Desoto at The Nacional, 8 x 10
Capital At Dusk 20 x 20
Snowy Day 20 x 20
Nation's Pride 10 x 8
Fiery Perspective 14 x 11
Snowy Capital 16 x 20
Snow Day DC 20 x 20