Philip Koch: Isle of Dreams

One of the all-time go-to Maine landscape painting subjects is the island seen at a distance, a poetic symbol of retreat and separation—and an image of great visual beauty. From Thomas Cole and John Marin to Tom Curry and Brita Holmquist, those islands take center stage, often spruce-topped, shifting and sublime.

Maryland-based painter Philip Koch adds to this ongoing bounty in Isle of Dreams. The dozen or so oils on canvas or panel and handful of vine charcoal and pastel pieces in the show include a fetching selection inspired by the down east archipelago.

While the title of a painting may include a specific locale, as in Isle au Haut Morning 1, 2016, Koch creates his views from memories, often from different times and places. “They recall a state of mind and a remembrance of a dream,” he writes. With its bright yellow sky and atmospheric touches, the Isle au Haut painting might be labeled neo-luminism with a shot of modernist energy.

In a few instances, a preliminary vine charcoal and pastel study accompanies the finished painting. In both soft pastel and forthright oil, Maine Islands, 2021, provides a pleasing prospect of a couple of islands, one of them quite scraggly, set against a pinkish sky.

Koch also paints the Maine coast, another classic landscape subject. With its rocky outcroppings Narrow Cove, Ogunquit, 2021, recalls some of Edward Hopper’s paintings made near the same spot (his Sea at Ogunquit, 1914, was reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp). The aesthetic lineage makes sense: Koch has been artist in residence at Hopper’s Truro home and studio 17 times.

In a statement for Isle of Dreams, the painter acknowledges his admiration for Thomas Cole and other 19th-century American landscape painters, in particular their “whole-hearted celebration of a natural world.” Ascension, 2022, and The Voyage of Memory, 2004, bring to mind Cole’s transcendent vision, rendered in contemporary terms that include a bold palette and lively brushwork. In these paintings and others, Koch offers a dream-like Maine, an invitation to new worlds where meandering estuaries lead to the sea and a sailboat makes its way through a northern wonderland.

—Carl Little