A river runs through local painter Patrick Ruane's landscapes

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There are as many ways for an artist to find his or her subject matter as there are artists. Penn Hills native Patrick Ruane found his when he was a teenager canoeing and camping along the Allegheny River.

The stillness and vastness of that river underlie the large paintings of his solo exhibition "At the River's Edge" at Westmoreland Museum of American Art. Mr. Ruane will give a free artist talk, "A River Runs Through It," at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Greensburg museum.

"Since I was a kid I've found some solace in the landscape, the imagery," he says.

He began painting the land at a very early age, even when such subject matter was out of fashion. And he continued while earning his fine arts degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Travels to the West after graduation "cemented my love of the landscape."

Although he's visited, and painted, elsewhere, "this is definitely the subject matter that seems most honest to me. I gravitate toward river valleys. They're imprinted upon my subconscious, I think."

Mr. Ruane, 50, grew up about three miles from the Allegheny. Now he lives about three miles from the river on the opposite side, in Shaler, with his wife, Kelly. Daughter Lindsey is a nurse in Pittsburgh. Daughter Caitlin attends college in Arizona.

"With that river I felt I was connected with everywhere else," Mr. Ruane says. "The Ohio, Mississippi, New Orleans; the Allegheny Forest to Canada. I could see how it was all connected and I was connected to it. I was never trying to escape anything. I just saw it as having endless possibilities."

"I think I was searching for the big answers, out in nature."

Philosophically, and by the permeating golden light that calls to mind the Luminists, he reflects the transcendent interpretation of the American land painted by 19th-century Hudson River School artists and those who followed.

"I like big empty places. The landscape goes out of the canvas in each direction, and this is a slice of it. I think, when [the paintings] work, there's a certain calm to them."

"I want people to know that even within built-up suburban areas there are views and images of nature where they can see the sublime -- the sun rising over the Allegheny in the morning on the way to work."

But Mr. Ruane is quick to distinguish his expression as contemporary, not referential. "I definitely am a landscape painter who came after Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism," he points out.

Even so, there's a literary quality to the landscapes. Mr. Ruane's rivers are mysterious, Huck Finn romantic, carriers of secrets -- as the song goes, "Ol' man river, dat ol' man river, he mus' know sumpin', but don't say nuthin' " -- their surfaces impenetrable, their currents threatening.

"It has a presence, that Allegheny -- that's a real river. It's not to be trifled with," he allows.

The artist plays on the sense of seduction and danger, bringing the water to the edge of the paintings, to envelope the viewer. "I want people to feel like their ankles are in the water."

As much as he's studied rivers, they remain elusive. "Everything feels like a near miss," he says of trying to capture a moment gliding by. "When you're lucky, the painting's an echo of what you saw."

The six paintings in the exhibition were made between August 2010 and mid-January 2011, and were inspired by a 12-mile stretch of the Allegheny between Downtown and Harmarville, and the Muskingum River outside his southeastern Ohio summer studio, which he acquired last year.

The river that inspired both contemplation and wanderlust in the young artist is simultaneously near and distant in paintings like "The Last Day of Summer." In "Across the Muskingum River, Spring 2011," a mature artist looks toward the future from a foothold on a rocky shoreline, the foreground trees at the brink of leafing out, the points of meditation and seeking merged in a horizon comfortably near.

"River's Edge" continues through April 24, as does "American Landscapes: Treasures From the Parrish Art Museum." Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and until 9 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $5 suggested donation, children under 12 and students free. Information: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.

Handmade Arcade

The annual Handmade Arcade, featuring local DIY crafters, is moving to spring and Downtown. The seventh annual free event will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 16 in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. A limited number of early bird passes, for a 10 to 11 a.m. preview, may be purchased at www.handmadearcade.com.

Wojnarowicz exhibition

"Spirituality," an exhibition of works by the late David Wojnarowicz, will open with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at P.P.O.W. gallery, 535 W. 22nd St., 3rd floor, New York City. The film "A Fire in My Belly," the edited version of which was removed from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition "Hide/Seek," will be screened. Other works by the artist will be exhibited with the intention of clarifying "various misconceptions that have been circulating in the past few months in the press and in discussions surrounding the censorship of the film, especially with regard to the film's timeline in relation to Wojnarowicz's biography, its various incarnations and meaning."

Planetary portraits

A Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, "Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes," is at California University of Pennsylvania through April 12.

Journalist and award-winning filmmaker Michael Benson selected imagery from four decades of NASA and European Space Agency space missions. "My goal was to locate, digitally process and print some of the most extraordinary sights ever captured," he said, including Mars' "dust devils" and the lava eruptions of Jupiter's moon Io.

Manderino Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, 8 a.m. to noon Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. 724-938-5244.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published March 2, 2011 5:00 AM


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