BOOTHBAY HARBOR — I think one of America’s most overrated artists was Roy Lichtenstein — the guy whose paintings looked like comic-book cartoons.
Lichtenstein used the Ben-Day dot style to brand himself. It’s easy to spot “a Lichtenstein,” and anything similar is a rip-off. Or so he wanted you to think.
Problem is, Lichtenstein took the idea from Andy Warhol, who had already intelligently explored it in painting. Sure, Lichtenstein made some great paintings, but he rode that horse into the ground soon after getting in the saddle.
This is why I approach highly stylized artists’ work with trepidation. While many artists use their own well-developed styles to cover new ground, many others use a stylized approach so they don’t have to.
Philip and Matt Barter are father and son painters who work in heavily stylized manners largely echoing Marsden Hartley in subject and appearance: thick outlines, bold colors, landscapes and seaside scenes. A joint exhibit of their work is on view through June 28 at Gleason Fine Art.
Philip is an excellent artist whose paintings range in terms of their aesthetic and conceptual concerns. His palette is always bright and lively, but masters many distinct moods.
His “Spring, Rangeley Lakes,” for example, is a candy-green landscape jubilantly festooned with gumdrop dots, while his “Hauled Up” depicts a snow-covered lobster boat in cool whites, blues and water greens sprinkled with a cast of sparkly pinks. Rather than the squirming liquid of the spring image, the winter scene has a drier, crystalline texture despite the icy green water.
My favorite of Philip’s paintings is “Millbridge.” It features a cool blue swirl of a stream swishing past three hauled-up lobster boats, a green garage and the chimney-topped peaks of three white houses peering over the trees.
I like that I can’t tell if it’s a spring or fall image. The dominant color of the trees and ground is a buttery ocher that could go either way. While the full trees hint of autumn, colorful flowers and blossoms vouch for spring. The paint is handled with a brushy looseness. It’s happy but not vapid.
Another favorite is “Sullivan Harbor.” This is a wintery scene with three working boats in a safe harbor. The forms are simple and cartoonish. The round harbor is surrounded by icy teal, and that by snow white. The dark-blue sea’s horizon is broken by purple trees on either side and a tiny island with pointy blue firs in the center.
The sky at the horizon is an intense split-pea yellow that fades up past reddish clouds to a teal green. As testament to Philip’s creative use of color, the scene is boldly punctuated in its very center by the one hot yellow-and-orange fishing boat.
While Philip uses acrylic, Matt paints in oil. This might be why he has a better sense of finish than his father, or it might be because Matt’s paintings are more formulaic. Matt’s work has much less range, shifting mostly between frontal shots of simplified fishermen and stylized waterfront scenes.
Matt’s stylized codes are well developed: Lobster traps are flat, linear grids; lobster boats are always seen in profile with the complete curve of the hull; fish are always like Hartley’s mackerels. This makes his work legible and easily recognizable. And by not fumbling for newly observed forms, Matt’s brush work feels strong and confident.
His “Taking up Gear” depicts two lobstermen pulling traps onto a dock. The traps, boat, shack and figures are in Matt’s stock and stylized language, allowing him to concentrate on a very strong composition with a clear and easy motion. (The pier is a simple line that flows in from the left and down to a trap on the boat; your eye then rides up the bow curve and back to the start.)
The lively surface, however, rests a little too much on the brushed grooves of the gesso underpainting. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s an effect that looks like strong brushwork without actually resulting from the handling of the paint within the image.
One of Matt’s reliefs (of which both artists have several) might be my favorite work in the show. “The Pier” features a brown shack in front of pines up above oblong, cut granite stones anchored by a red boat down to the right. It’s a nice form with a gentle flow. It’s sweet, pleasant and impressively apt.
Philip’s two reliefs are not as strong as “The Pier,” but he is an excellent, interesting and highly enjoyable Maine painter with a surprising range as a colorist.
Matt has talent, but I hope he moves his focus from self-branding towards challenging himself with range and discovery. He’s proven he can make good paintings with a fine sense of finish, but he could do much more by moving out from under the shadows of his father and Hartley to find his own voice.
Still, Matt certainly has respect for his father’s craft and vision — what a gift on Father’s Day this must be for his dad.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: