At first glance, “Surface, Light and Structure” looks like a particularly strong show of sea-oriented landscapes.
The technical term for this kind of painting is “marine,” but it has always felt to me like an insufficient word. This show at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth is a reminder about how complex, interesting and important this question really is, and that painting has long been able to mobilize sensory concepts beyond language.
When you orient yourself to a nautical landscape, after all, you aren’t standing in water.
While Richard Keen’s paintings are undeniably steeped in Maine, Frances Hynes is a part-time Mainer better described as a successful New York painter, and Lyle Salmi is the chair of the Art Department at Millikin University in Illinois.
Still, the works all participate in a deeply engaged conversation — a reminder that Maine art has always played a leading, critical role in American landscape painting. And I am completely comfortable asserting that landscape painting is critical to most American painting before, during and since Abstract Expressionism.
Salmi’s work might seem to be the least challenging conceptually, because he so clearly enforces his relationship to Monet’s late paintings such as the “Waterlilies.” But we seem to agree that Monet’s late works took painting on a path that led to Abstract Expressionism and created our expectations about brushy abstraction and, to a large degree, painting in general.
Salmi’s works are mostly small atmospheric oils that pulse through areas of color woven to the surface by hatched, thin brush strokes that insist on implying the logic of a grid.
The presence of the grid (so key from Uccello to Mondrian and beyond) is echoed and supported by the literal grids seen at the edge of Hynes’ work and the clear mathematical logic of Keen’s work.
At its best, Salmi’s work lies down to act like reflections on a water surface. This is clearly the case in one of his larger canvases, “Re: Flecting,” because of his use of red — an insistently solid color. The red could be reflected flowers or lights, but we are certainly not seeing it directly.
Salmi’s use of reflection hits both its major meanings, refraction and meditation. These are thoughtful works, and the idea of indirect vision touches at the foundation of painterly conceptualism.
Yet because of the primary role of rhythmic strokes of color on its surface, Salmi’s work ultimately relies on painterly sensibilities. Whether you like it, in other words, is a question of your own sensibilities — or taste. And this is precisely why Salmi’s tip of the hat to Monet is so important: He wants to make it clear he’s up to something much broader than bonbons.
Hynes’ work is the keystone to the show. She has an old-school touch informed by the surfaces of artists like John Marin, Milton Avery and John Heliker — and I mean that as a serious compliment.
Hynes’ “Sea” is a 30-by-40-inch oil on canvas in which a few quavering parallel strokes work their way to the front to define the pink sky, the wave-foamed aqua sea and the green brown shore of sand and plants.
The work takes a map point of view in its lower half, enforcing this by the gridding paint strokes heading in from the edges. “Sea” is a stunning work deeply informed by Marin and Maine.
“Gull Cliff” is a particularly strong example of Hynes’ painting. It looks straight down on a cove beach to the left with the water off to the upper right. The paint is so thickly built up that the work becomes a study in color and solidity from the land side against the flickered water surface defined by light, as well as the shape and motion of the water and waves.
Keen’s work gracefully looks through the lens of nautical engineering back toward nature. In “Sea Geometry No. 194,” for example, he applies cross-sections of boat designs to the horizon and central lines of the nautical landscape. The implication is that, for practical and material reasons, people have emulated natural design.
Keen reminds us that long before we had calculus to describe the complex forms (hyperbolic paraboloids) of things like hull forms, we looked to nature’s shells, plants and mineral structures as examples.
Through boats, weirs, nets and other accoutrements of Maine’s nautical culture, Keen reveals a perception of nature. He finds the landscape horizon in the orientation of a boat, the tides in the placement of a weir, trees and aerodynamics in the hull of a boat, and so on.
Keen’s 7-foot “Wreck of the D.T. Sheridan” presents the echoes of a lost ship not only as a ghost in the landscape, but the landscape as the pre-figuration of the ship. The emphasized outlines of the wizened hills and carved coast match the form of the absent vessel.
The effect is more metaphysical than Keen’s other works. Despite the danger of nostalgia, this has great potential as a new direction for the artist.
At the other end of Keen’s work is “Night Sea,” a small, highly abstract work with a surface built up of oil and encaustic that equals the density of Hynes’ impasto textures.
“Night Sea” presents as a taut, formalist black-lined composition of blues and teals, but over time quietly unfurls its logic and forms — both nautical and landscape. It’s a gem.
While Keen’s work alone gets in my wheelhouse, I think almost any fan of modernist coastal painting will find “Surface, Light and Structure” to be an unusually interesting gallery show.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: