“I’m not interested in pure abstraction,” Laura Grenning proclaimed. “The [painters] that I’m most interested in are the ones that take all this great training but bring it to today’s visual experience.” The gallerist, who’s celebrating the 20th anniversary of her eponymous Sag Harbor gallery, responds to, exhibits and promotes “classically trained painters that are looking at all of art history to inform their technique.”
Stepping into her gallery can feel like stepping back through time. Visitors won’t encounter the candy colors of Pop Art or Abstract Expressionism’s amorphous fields. What they’ll find are paintings and drawings that strive to accurately portray the world through time-honored techniques.
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This month, Grenning features the work of Stephen Hannock, a painter who’s been commissioned by Sting and even won an Oscar (What Dreams May Come) for his landscapes that reflect the beauty of nature and carry subtly expressed messages. “He paints these beautiful, luminous landscapes. Then with the back of his paintbrush he’ll etch in poems or stories or memories of that place. His handwriting will look, for example, like the cornstalks in a field.”
That kind of Impressionistic realism “inspired by direct observation of nature and life” has always inspired Grenning. She recalled begging her mother to buy her a print by Frederick Church, a 19th century Hudson River School painter, when she was just eight years old. “The whole Hudson River painting school was about the Transcendentalist philosophy of celebrating nature. I’m incredibly inspired by natural beauty…that’s why I live on the East End.”
But hers was not a straight path into the art world. Though one of her works won a spot in a student exhibition at MoMA when she was just in the eighth grade, she was later frustrated by “loosey-goosey” college courses. “It wasn’t very skill-based,” she explained. “I always loved more highly refined classical art and I just thought, ‘This isn’t going to get me anywhere.’ So I got a degree in economics and I ended up going to work at Goldman Sachs right out of college.”
Grenning’s career in financial analysis brought her halfway around the world to Hong Kong, advising institutional clients on Southeast Asian stocks, commodities and currencies. While there was money and success, what was missing was fulfillment. “Hong Kong was a great place to be a young capitalist, but I had always felt more comfortable putting my mucky boots on and walking around Shelter Island. That’s where my soul was.”
Now, whether she’s valuing Old Master paintings or charting the career of a young artist, she puts her business acumen to work guiding clients and enabling artists to make a living. “I believe that artists are true leaders, because they’re tuned into the thing that 90 percent of us can’t even see or feel. They’re a conduit to the real truth. And truth and beauty, I believe, are the guardrails for all society.”