If you could gather all the artists who have been infatuated by the rugged New England coast over the years, you'd have a pretty good American art museum.
Thomas Cole — the founder of the Hudson River School — was among the first when he discovered the threatening crags, dark caverns and thundering seas of Maine during the early 1800s.
Behind him came a long line of talents that stretches from famed Luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane and the incomparable Winslow Homer to American Impressionists John Twachtman, J. Alden Weir and Childe Hassam — not to mention such celebrated 20th-century figures as Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent andEdward Hopper.
Exactly where Maryland painter Philip Koch fits within this long tradition may be hard to fathom at first. His often surreal, decidedly expressionist renderings of such famously picturesque sights as Mount Desert Island — which are on view at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center through Oct. 2 — are so highly charged with energy and color that you may not recognize the landscape so beautifully rendered by Hudson River giant Frederic Edwin Church in the mid-1800s.
But there's no doubt that the evocative New England scenery has gripped his imagination as profoundly and perhaps as spiritually as it affected the transcendental Church — or that Koch has returned to plumb that experience again and again for more than 35 years.
Originally schooled as an abstract artist, Koch discovered early on in his career an irresistible counter-attraction to the representational landscapes of the Hudson River painters and the realism of Hopper.
And like these influential role models, he found himself drawn to the eye-grabbing coastal vistas of New England, especially after his exploration of Hopper's work led to the first of many summer weeks painting in the artist's famous hilltop studio overlooking the shore in South Truro, Mass.
"Nobody nailed the look of sand dunes in the late sun like Hopper," Koch says, in the catalog that accompanies his show. But for the past 20 years, in particular, he's clearly found ways to re-envision many of the same sights and produce works that stand "free of the great man's shadow."
Like Church before him, Koch begins with his formidable skills as a draftsman, making sketch after charcoal sketch in the open air as he pares the landscape down to its visual essence.
Simple, crisp, near-abstracted shapes redefine the swaths of brush and trees that cross the foreground of "Porcupine Islands from Cadillac Mountain," for example, while the islands themselves loom in the fog-shrouded distance like a fleet of slow-moving sand barges.
Outline is paramount here, giving a jagged edge to the brush line and jutting fir boughs as well as solid, ponderous shapes to the islands. Yet in addition to his brisk and economical hand Koch also demonstrates the ability to shade and smear, filling in each contour with quick yet unexpectedly rich passages of detail, gesture and texture.
Small oil sketches such as "Banner" and "Red Tree" reflect the artist's next step, where he combines his simple, sometimes almost diagrammatic versions of the landscape with a distinctive palette of heightened, frequently anti-naturalistic colors.
Yet in nearly every one, some passage of pink, gold, violet or orange seems to connect his skies with those of artists long past, giving historical roots to his edgy, seemingly fantastical compositions.
Large-scale paintings such as "The Song of All Days" take this approach even further, blending — like Church — elements from different places into a single compelling if largely imaginary landscape.
In Koch's hands, two small islands of rock take on the character of slowly moving ships — each one topped by a jagged line of firs that tower into the air like sails.
Silhouetted against a gold and orange sky — and reflected with the sky in the still water — these evocative vessels help conjure up an arresting vision of a mysterious, dark and mostly made-up place.
And as you peer into the shadows, it's hard not to feel that you're looking into a world that's timeless.
Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch"
Where: Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Drive,Newport News
When: Through Oct. 2
Cost: $7.50 adults, $4 children 6-12 (free 5-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays)
Online: Go to dailypress.com/kochlandscapes to see a gallery of images from the show.