Maine is not polished, but weather-beaten.
It is glacier-ground, storm-buffeted and wizened by unrelenting Nature and her moody brood of seasons.
Maine’s artistic legacy may be inextricably bound to the great landscape painters irresistibly drawn here, but its painterly voice — plaintive, practical and well-worn — reaches past landscape.
Amongst Maine artists not based in landscape painting, John Whalley is unsurpassed.
Indeed, Whalley’s graphite drawings are second to none in the nation. But while he has been primarily seen as a draftsman, he is putting more energy than ever into painting.
Superficially, Whalley’s still lifes look something like a cross between Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes and Harnett’s or Peto’s deliciously trompe l’oeil bonbons.
The content of Whalley’s pictures is also somewhat similar to these works. For the trompe l’oeil painters, technique was absolutely critical to their theatricality-based meaning, and Cornell’s Victorian-flavored and detail-obsessed assemblages exude fascinations bordering on compulsion.
But Whalley’s temperament is suited to Maine. His theatricality is about thoughtful drama rather than braggadocio, and his fascinations are understandable and intelligently cognitive rather than neurotically self-involved.
The works in “World of Wonders” at Portland’s Greenhut Galleries tend to feature oft-handled objects placed on age-frayed books, such as a plumb line sitting on a small, unlabeled 19th-century hand-bound volume. Even two things together connotes an intentional owner rather than insentient objects of unknowable import.
My favorite picture pair comprises the giant drawing “Class Picture” next to the oil painting “Devotional Harmonist.” Both feature the same group of 16 heavily used pencils — first on an old writing slate and then on a worn Victorian-era book of sacred music.
In the latter image, the side-by-side group has a musical rhythm and the look of organ pipes, while in “Class Picture,” they look like the kids that make up the class — marked more by their differences (height, texture, etc.) than their similarities. Yet between the images, the individual pencils can be recognized rather like characters.
The light on the graphite “Class Picture” is very soft. Its dryness is echoed by the wood framing on the seasoned slate. There is a strange tension between the outdated writing slate and the pencils — an oft-overlooked tool with which Whalley clearly has an intimate relationship.
While the pencils reveal a personal and physical familiarity, the slate exudes a bygone anonymity. Through the pencils, we relate to the slate. Whalley might be a pencil virtuoso, but we’ve all done our time with pencils in school.
The light in “Devotional Harmonist” is the big difference. The light is so physically close that it must be artificial — as evidenced by the splayed shadows at the base of the pencils. This theatrical effect makes sense with the subject musical performance, and contrasts meaningfully with the sun-soaked softness of the straight-backed “Class Picture” shadows.
One of Whalley’s great drawing achievements is his coherent mastery of light and shadow across textures. While his virtuosity has always been fascinating, it has remained largely visual until now. Whalley’s new paintings use color to create a sense of tactile dynamism. They act like assemblages rather than old photos.
“Secrets” features an aged padlock on a use-worn diary. Since neither can be opened in a painting, their depiction enforces their intriguing silence. Most striking, however, is Whalley’s loose brushwork. The background surface is completely abstract close up, and the use of thick white impasto on the lock and the white paper is a significant departure for an artist so talented he can (and often does) completely hide his technique.
Most of the objects seem to hold personal fascination for Whalley, but in a way we can understand. Old books were the wells of knowledge. We can see the magic of an old compass or a plumb line (which point not straight “down” but always toward the center of the Earth). The ceramic “marbles” featured throughout the works were made by children in the Colonial era, as we (and no doubt Whalley) can make them now: Globs of yard clay rolled until solidly round and tossed in the fireplace.
Whalley’s work isn’t narrative or even nostalgic. Rather, it’s about the fascination with how we invest objects with ideas and histories.
My favorite piece in “World of Wonders” is “Nation’s Business.” It depicts venerable keys and seasoned coins on a well-worn, over-stuffed envelope dated 1936 (and backed up by the cancelled 3-cent postage), all sitting on a hand-marked accounts ledger.
It’s a drawing of awesome skill. But the content here is uncannily directed at us; a time of economic crisis and war blossoming across the ocean. This is us at another time — concerns about the economy, security and the relationship of the government and business. It’s an extraordinary image.
Once again, Whalley includes a box of the artifacts in his pictures. I wish he wouldn’t, but it is fun, and reveals both his incomparable skill and the extent to which he departs from the objects he depicts.
The 20 works in “World of Wonders” represent an extraordinary feat. Whalley is a great artist, and this is a fascinating and mind-bogglingly impressive show. It’s also sweet, fun, smart and immensely enjoyable.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: