Fourteen paintings by Bolinas artist Dieter Tremp hang in Commonweal’s gallery space, but the walls themselves are bare. Instead, seven frames hang from wire strands, forming a oval in the middle of the room. Each frame holds two paintings: one facing the circle’s center, the other facing outward.
Many paintings in the exhibit, titled “Spirit of Place,” are based on world icons, such as the Parthenon or Macchu Pichu. Mr. Tremp, a world traveler who was born in a small German town near the Danish border, has visited many of the places in his paintings. His focus is on impressionistic renderings meant to convey each site’s spirit, and the changes the sites have sustained over time. Words or symbols are often incorporated to deepen meaning. The circular installation itself, he says, generates its own atmosphere.
“It encourages you to walk around and interact with them as individual pieces displaying places with some innate spirit, while as a sculptural piece they have become a spiritual place themselves,” Mr. Tremp, himself a curator for the Bolinas Museum and a 14-year Bolinas resident, said on Friday afternoon.
The relationship between a place with a powerful spiritual essence and the changes wrought by the humans drawn there is complex, according to Mr. Tremp. “My sense is that humans can add to it, but they add both positive and negative karma. So there must be something original to a place,” he said.
Most of the paintings, each four by five feet, depict manmade structures from many different eras. One, “Circle of Stones,” is loosely based on the Callanish Stones in Scotland, a prehistoric religious site made of more than a dozen massive slabs in a ragged circle, a center from which rows of stones emanate. Mr. Tremp’s painting is simplified to nine stones, shown from two perspectives. The upper portion of the canvas shows the monoliths as seen from the ground against an earth-tone firmament; beneath these is a bird’s eye view of the stones arranged in a perfect circle. Above each monolith he has painted, in a faint white barely noticeable, the names of the nine planets (Pluto included).
Another painting, “Shaman,” depicts two tall prehistoric stones painted with flying deer, which are located in Mongolia. In Mr. Tremp’s version, a faint echo of the flying deer leaps across the painted blue sky. In “The Center,” featuring Tibet’s Mount Kailash—considered the center of the universe by multiple religions—Mr. Tremp shows the stone chortens that circle the base of the mountain as floating in the air. A raised stamp of sorts, with a square representing the mountain nested within four concentric circles, is on the lower canvas.
“I guess I have the streak of a symbolist in me,” Mr. Tremp said of the special additions he makes to many of the paintings. “I like things with multiple meanings and I like having messages found.”
Mr. Tremp’s painting techniques can either emphasize or almost obscure those symbols. He incorporates a roughly textured surface—used for the stamp of circles and other features—made from a paste of marble dust. He layers paint on top of the paste, which he then wipes down, leaving the viewer looking at a remaining trace into which symbols like the deer or the words of the planets easily fade.
“My main method is not really brushes, but rags,” Mr. Tremp said.
In many of the pieces, the human structures either purposefully reflect the surroundings or appear to be succumbing to nature and time. A temple in Kathmandu reflects the epic mountain range behind it. The temples of Angkor Wat are half-devoured by tree roots; an abandoned Mayan temple (once a site of human sacrifice) fades into the lush jungle. The Parthenon, painted a few shades lighter than the dirt-brown of the long staircase leading up to it, is also abandoned.
“Even the most successful religious buildings are more successful, to me, when the priests are gone,” Mr. Tremp said.
Other sites move Mr. Tremp because of their multifaceted pasts. A tower at the mouth of Portugal’s Targus River, built by order of a king in the 1500s, floats in a brilliant turquoise sea. Mr. Tremp noted that it would be a welcome sight for sailors returning from long journeys but not for the slaves held on board. “It’s beautiful and horrible at the same time,” he said.
Another piece depicts a defunct lighthouse near the Kiel Canal in Germany, which Mr. Tremp played in as a child. It is a popular backdrop for wedding ceremonies, but he painted it unlit and swaddled in darkness.
“It was built in order to transfer the German navy from one warship to another so it was all for the wrong reasons. But everyone who sees it says it’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said.
The exhibit provides multiple layers of interpretation. Each painting’s texture and color palette affects the viewer’s sense of the place represented, as does the contrast between realistic and interpretive detail. The circular design of the installation generates another layer of symbolism, as do the arrangement and interaction of the images. And examining how Mr. Tremp chose to depict the real-life sites—which details he kept, which he eliminated—could induce further contemplation.
Regardless of the meanings one draws, Mr. Tremp says the space created by the installation has a unique spirituality of its own.
The day after the paintings were hung, roughly 200 family and friends of late Bolinas resident Tom D’Onofrio convened in the cavernous gallery for a memorial. An altar was set up within the circle of paintings.
“It became a room within the room,” Mr. Tremp said. “This turned into a quiet space.”
Dieter Tremp’s installation “Spirit of Place” is on exhibit until Sept. 30, at the Commonweal Gallery, at 451 Mesa Road in Bolinas. An opening reception takes place on Saturday, Sept. 5, from 3 to 5 p.m. and the exhibit is also open the following Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Otherwise, it is open to visitors on weekdays only, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.