Brown is a problem in painting. It wasn’t always a problem. Back in the day, when the leading pigments were dirt that was either burnt, or not, browns led the way: Sienna, burnt sienna, umber, burnt umber, etc. And, yes, “Sienna” was dirt from Siena, Italy, that was largely iron oxide and manganese oxide. “Burnt Sienna” is that same dirt after heating. These have been among the leading pigments since humans began painting.

But since the Barbizon painters first took tubes of paint out into the landscape to paint from nature, brown has become a problematic thing for painters. In school, American kids are taught that red and blue, when combined, make purple. That might be true in the ideal world of color and light, but in the world of pigments and minerals, when you add red paint to blue paint, you inevitably get some horrible shade of dung – brown in the worst way.

And not just red and blue: Without white, half of all combinations of pigments, or so it seems, drift into unsalvageable browns. In a recent column, I wrote about Vincent van Gogh’s seemingly Faustian ability to pull brushes loaded with wet oil paint through wet oil painting and almost never create brown. The work now on display at Greenhut Galleries relates to the question of brown in painting, but with both sides of the conversation fully covered.

On one side, we see J. Thomas R. Higgins, whose oil landscapes seem practically incapable of finding brown, let alone using it. On the other side are works by one of Maine’s great landscape artists, the late Neil Welliver, and then a small show of highly energized paintings by Portland artist George Lloyd. Represented by woodcuts, oils and watercolors, Welliver’s organic palette is almost defined by his balanced propensity for white and brown. Lloyd is something completely different: His work is so soaked in architectural intelligence and old-master awareness that his browns seem to play a foundational role, the stage itself, the wooden floor.

“Encroaching,” by J. Thomas R. Higgins. Photo courtesy of J. Thomas R. Higgins

Higgins is that traditional plein air painter in all the best senses: energy, urgency, the quick-flickered brush, economy, legibility and a scurried bit of bravado. “Encroaching,” for example, is a 30-by-32-inch oil on linen in which we see a humble country abode – barely – at the end of a field, behind high grass and flowers, through thick trees and under a summer blue sky. The sun is directly on our backs, and it heats up the ochre and yellow highlights of the field. The palette reflects more bright sun than atmosphere, but it holds together nicely. The trick, or so it seems, is that Higgins’ only green paint is viridian, an intense but ultimately transparent bluish-green, deep-ocean color that can drift comfortably toward blue or green or yellow. This is not to say Higgins doesn’t show us 20 various greens in “Encroaching” – he certainly does – but they all appear to built on a viridian base (although I have to imagine some are made from yellow and blue). It’s an approach tacitly built on avoiding mud.

“Trout in Reflected Tree,” by Neil Welliver. Photo courtesy of Shelia Geoffrion and LBP Fine Art Consultants

Welliver is probably best known for his large, sparely painted landscapes of birch forests in Maine. His painting style employs thick sections of flat color, not unlike paint-by-number logic. A small but excellent canvas is his “Study for Barren with Snow,” the point of a granite boulder-littered, winter-brown blueberry hill spotted with patches of snow under a cold blue spring sky. It’s a painterly approach that dovetails with printmaking processes, and Welliver was a leading print artist, as well. He is represented here by very strong woodcuts such as “New Dams in the Meadow,” a scene in which autumnal colors (and birches) are reflected in a beaver dam-fattened meadow stream. Among Welliver’s best-known images were views of trout in shallow streams with quavering water distortions. This exhibition features several such images, including the true gem of the show, “Trout in Reflected Tree,” an 18-by-21.5-inch watercolor.

Lloyd’s eight works effortlessly combine drawing and painting. Their first impression is of a body of work in the vein of Hans Hoffmann, the great champion of American push-pull abstraction. Rectangles float to the fore and recede. But within Lloyd’s often dense surfaces of strokes – no less frantic than they are facile – are scalpel-sharp lines cut through the paint with zooming speed and unerring precision. In “La Stanza da Letto” (Italian for “bedroom”), the painting unfolds as a series of vertical, rectangular forms moving across an architectural space (set by an interior white rather than natural light) with a pair of organic, pillowy forms at the base. The forms are vague but decisive, the cut stripes are deft and the flickered brush strokes move at the speed of light. Churning open the scene from the bottom left are curling pencils strokes that define the pillowy forms – masterly in their precision. Lloyd’s skill anchors the scene from the start.

“Married Couple,” by George Lloyd. Photo courtesy of George Lloyd

“La Stanza da Letto,” the only work in oil, evinces a lighter touch than the other works on display. The drawing “The Married Couple” is the only other piece in the show that reprises Lloyd’s curling virtuosity. The others fall mostly within a sense of dense rectangular fields – walls, doors, passages, city lots, solid architectural forms, etc – that, surprisingly, don’t try to lay themselves flat (like a map, say, compared to a portrait). This vertical sense of confronting the viewer relates Lloyd’s work to modernist painting over drawing even when the works feature drawn lines. Lloyd’s sense of structure and composition are architectural – places for bodies, including the body of the viewer. In particular, his strongest works exude a sense of “massing”– a purely architectural concept that refers to the form and scale of a building.

“Crepuscular Construct” is a subdued painting in browns that uses a Mondrian-esque thick brown edge-to-edge stripe to frame a form that fluctuates between a Hoffmann-esque push-pull rectangle and a Mark Rothko open portal. Eventually, the piece comes into view as an exterior door into a (brick?) building with a few steps before it. The brown strip might be a telephone pole. But in the end, the painterly qualities retake the field. The representational logic is interesting, but it refuses to dominate. We are left with the painterly mechanisms, which were Lloyd’s truest fascination.

Despite his history with (and love of) architecture, Lloyd’s work primarily wells up from his long experience painting in the Bay Area and his Boston upbringing. We can sense the puritanical rigor of his New England roots (think Will Barnet), but the works exude the frontal painterly exuberance of Nathan Oliveira or Richard Diebenkorn, Lloyd’s peers from his time on the West Coast. In fact, this body of work largely goes back to the late 1980s when Lloyd had just returned to Maine – his head swimming in Bay Area ideas – and when he was just switching to acrylic. And it is in the transitions, the crossroads, where we can follow an artist while he thinks through his approach, and sometimes even changes his mind.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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