I’m an oil painter and I try to be interested in social media, I really do. But I’ve got a tiny problem with monitoring local online real estate. (I could stop any day, really!) Red hearts applied to photographs of paintings don’t thrill me like scrolling though snapshots of promising, underpriced properties rife with original molding, hardwood floors, gardens, outbuildings and porches. By now I should know how the story ends––I’m not going to buy a new house––but the kick comes from exploring virtual spaces, other people’s aesthetics and their once-private-now-public nooks and crannies.

Last month, out of the blue, a DM from painter Celia Reisman arrived on Instagram kindly saying that she liked my painting of a street view near my house. It turns out that she lives nearby and her show Borderlands is on exhibit now at Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia (through November 28). She creates oil paintings from gouache drawings made from direct observation in a parked car, occasionally making small oils on site. She rarely uses photos of a site for reference, preferring instead to return to the original location.

Obsessive as I am, my first question for Celia was whether the idea of real estate had any bearing on her landscapes, since her work depicts yards, fences, back alleys, and the places between houses favored by children, pets, stray animals, and devoted walkers. These are the kinds of places that I’m drawn to daydream about and paint. “Rather than looking for the picturesque,” she answered, “I gravitated to the smaller aspects of a scene––so I like the areas that are not groomed or cared for but showcase one’s daily life. Also, an unusual color or shape grabs my attention. I sit in my car and really am a voyeur. People tend not to notice me, and I like that. I can concentrate when I draw. If they do see me and come over, I explain I’m painting, and they are pleased and leave. Usually, the conversation ends with no explanation.”

She continues, “I do find some excitement in the fact that I am noticing things that are so mundane. Something that I think is worthy of paying attention to, recording, and staring at, is disregarded by the owners.  People are staging scenes for me; they own it, they built it, but they wouldn’t elevate it. And I guess by painting it I am elevating it. I get upset if I go to paint a place and things have been moved. It no longer holds the same magic.”


Celia Reisman, Half and Half, 2020. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches,  Image courtesy of Celia Reisman and Gross McCleaf Gallery


Centered yet divided against itself, Reisman’s Half and Half depicts a grey and white duplex and surrounding buildings in modulated tones and sharply divided or shadow-splashed planes in the realist/cubist manner. Small bits of bright color that bait the eye gain strength next to monochromatic buildings and hazy, remote trees. A red flower pot, a sunny hedge, garish outbuildings and color-filled windows suggest multiple experiences and moods. A long patch of grassy median, railings and walls flatten in opposition to the dimensional effect of blue sky reflected in oblique windows, a shadowy archway, or a receding row of shrubs. Together these details––directives, really––stress the emptiness of the foreground.

To captivate buyers, real estate photos don’t include people. Reisman “occasionally adds a figure in the windows or hiding in the yard. . . . .Sometimes it works, and I like the idea of a hidden narrative.” Her unpopulated paintings make me feel self-aware in a different way from real estate photos: her aloof houses are challenging, seem to have their backs turned to me, the viewer, and transform me into an interloper. She wants us to “peek around the corners and in the back” and “pay attention to the outskirts around the architecture.” She states, “I’m not aiming to talk about isolation or privacy, even though there’s a feeling of remoteness. I accept the moods that develop.” She explains, “By using fewer windows I’m aiming to make the paintings less descriptive and more about the formal relationship; scale of shapes, color structure, mixed perspectives and spatial inconsistencies.”


Celia Reisman, On The Way, 2019, Oil on canvas, 20 x 22 inches, Courtesy Celia Reisman and Gross McCleaf Gallery


Nocturnal, smudgy, unified by dark tones, On The Way interlocks layers of trees, grass and shrubbery to frame a distant, artificially lit, red tree within an archway. Our view is tight enough to block out the night sky, allowing the tree’s leaves to stand in for stars, and shadows cast across the lawn to suggest people or animals in the wings. Somnolent, dreamy, abstract and centered, the painting evokes emotional security and feelings of hominess within nature, a primary goal in real estate fantasyland. In contrast, Half and Half appeals as a puzzle of different cues that invite the viewer, almost like a buyer, to assess realistic, practical subjects such as safety, ambience, and repairs to be made: the relevant difference is that shabby houses are always more charming to look at than to live in.

Along with the emotional and practical links to real estate that Reisman’s work stimulates in me, it makes sense that she would respond to my painting of a corner near my house, Ceiling Below Landscape, since it contrasts a planar, interior view with an external, open perspective. It substantiates being in two places at once. Painting imaginary spaces that evolve from real ones, she and I claim private, brief proprietorship of marginal and temporary suburban structures.


Elizabeth Johnson, Ceiling Below Landscape, 2020, Oil on canvas, 24 x18 inches


After graduating from Bard College and living in San Francisco for many years, Elizabeth Johnson makes oil paintings, writes reviews for deliciousline.org, interviews artists for figure/ground.org and organizes exhibits that mix urban and local artists for Lehigh Valley colleges. Her Anti-Story paintings layer plein air and studio paintings with random, flat, curved and warped images to build a confusing but appealing space that resists narrative.