Smile Politely

Harry Breen’s Illinois: a retrospective of prairie state paintings

Artist Harry Breen’s recent retrospective exhibition of prairie state paintings comes just in time for the celebration of the Illinois bicentennial. A native of the state, and faculty emeritus at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design, Breen, now 89, has long been interested in the subject of landscapes in both his studio and academic work.  A painter as well as a sculptor, Breen has said that “the forms, spaces, colors, patterns, and textures found in nature have provided me with a rich vocabulary for [his] work.” 

The response from the crowd at the opening night reception made it clear that Breen’s mission to “share the poetry” he sees in the natural world, had been successfully accomplished. The collection’s range provides a variety of entry points into Breen’s vision. For some it was power of the stormscapes, for others the awe-inspiring perspective of the prairiescapes. 

One is immediately struck by the artist’s craftsmanship, which inspired many questions about his process and references. For both old and new fans alike, standing before one of Breen’s landscapes can be a deeply emotional — or even existential —experience. Humans and their buildlings and machines, though rendered in perfect detail, are dwarfed by the powerful presence of the natural world. For this reviewer, it is the Illinois sky who remains center stage throughout the collection.

Allen Weller, faculty emeritus at the Universiity of Illinois School of Art + Design, and fomer dean of fine and applied and director of Krannert Art Museum, has written about Breen’s “limitless skies.” In noting how Breen “suggests the infinite in the endless horizons of the landscapes,” Weller points to the powerful sense of spirituality that runs through the work. 

Perhaps to better understand the importance of spirtuality in Breen’s work, it is worth noting that the artist’s body of work includes a fair amount of liturgical art. Locally, you may have seen his murals, sculpture, and furniture design at Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Champaign. His commissioned redesigns of churches throughout the Midwest highlight his belief in the sacredness of the natural world. 

These images of the Holy Cross’ baptistry share much of the vision, technique, and message of the bicentennial landscape collection. Despite which flavor of spirituality you may (or may not) subscribe to, Breen’s landscapes invite you in to explore your own relationship to nature and to the very landscape that surrounds you locally. 

A subset of the collection takes this theme furtther by taking the skyscape past the canvas and into the frame. This powerful depiction of our struggle to constrain the power of the natural world seems more significant now that ever. 

There is also an accidental layer of meaning that emerges by virtue of the exhibit’s location. Displayed in Techline, a furniture design studio owned and operated by the Breen family, the wild power of nature that defies the constraints of Breen’s canvas remains in stark contrast to the Swiss design aesthetic and fine lines of Techline’s cabinetry and desks. In this space that is in part dedicated to creating order out of chaos, Breen’s work reminds us of our lack of power in the face of nature’s chaos. And however you view what is out there in the universe of Breen’s powerful skies, taking time to adjust our perspective is important. 

Whether this prairie state is your birthplace, your college town, or your forever home, I urge you to spend an hour at this exhibit. As our town continues to develop, enjoy this opportunity to ponder the beauty of the prairie sky.  

Many of the original paintings in this exhibition are for sale. Digital prints are also available.


Harry Breen: a bicentennial exhibition celebrating the fertile fields of the prairie state
Techline Studio and Gallery
307 S Locust St
December 8th to January 30th
Check gallery website for hours

Visit the artist’s website to learn more about his work.

First and second photos taken by Debra Domal. Third and fourth photos from the artist’s website. 

Arts Editor

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