“The Canoe” by artist John Carnes, who will have his work on display at the Green Lion Gallery in Bath for an upcoming exhibit. (Courtesy photo)

BATH — The evolving career of local artist John Carnes is structured in its abstraction. Carnes has taken it upon himself to redefine his identity as an artist time and time again, while challenging the nature of composition and offering a new perspective on transformation.

His work, in its changing forms, will be on display later this month in Bath as part of a new exhibit, “John Carnes: A Watercolor Odyssey,” starting Friday, March 22, at Green Lion Gallery.

Carnes’ career as an artist has taken a different shape with each chapter. His early works were inspired by the landscape during his excursions in the wilderness of Western Maine and, from there, he began to develop an interest in the geometric structure underlying the landscapes that he studied. Carnes started to make the shift toward the visual analysis of shape when he painted a fly-fisherman on the Magalloway River; instead of painting each individual tree in the dark forest beyond the illuminated river, he depicted the background with broad strokes in various intensities of black and gray. He was pleasantly surprised with the results and soon began to incorporate this technique into other elements of painting.

Carnes started out in New Jersey, where he convinced his parents to let him enroll in an adult education drawing class as a young child. After attending Rutgers and then Boston University, where he studied law, Carnes had no desire to become a lawyer. Instead, he indulged his creativity at the Center for Visual Studies in Cambridge, where he studied under photographers Jim Stone and Henry Horenstein.

He and his wife soon moved to Maine, where Carnes worked as a freelance photographer covering high school sports. Carnes eventually stumbled upon the “best lawyer job in the state of Maine” with the Maine Human Rights Commission. About halfway through his 27-year career with the Human Rights Commission, Carnes took a watercolor class and began painting on fishing trips near Grafton Notch State Park.

“Blue View,” by John Carnes will be among the works on display at an upcoming exhibit at Green Lion Gallery in Bath. (Courtesy photo)

Carnes continued to push himself as an artist as his work evolved. He began to experiment with more abstract landscapes in which the shapes became the focus of the work. Later, he took a year off from using color, concentrating solely on drawing. Those chapters were followed by an extended study of volumes, which built up Carnes’ interest in geometric abstractions.

For the past three years, Carnes has found a way to combine the elements which most intrigue him. He began working in a reductionist grid pattern — larger paintings consisting of hundreds of small rectangular paintings — in response to an article that he read in an art magazine.

“There was a painter who said that he was gonna quit being a painter because it was just filling in little shapes like we were in kindergarten. … I thought, OK, rather than be offended, I’m gonna go as far in your direction as I can. I’m just gonna make squares and rectangles and fill them in and see if I can make art using that technique. It’s sort of a personally inspired challenge.”

Carnes applies the reductionist grid pattern to large watercolor paintings, some of which are deconstructed versions of Renaissance paintings while others are abstract interpretations of reflections in tin foil. His goals as an artist have moved beyond depicting forested landscapes; he is constantly challenging himself to inspire viewers to find a personal connection among shapes, lines, and colors.

“What makes it exciting for the viewer? Every viewer looks at art with their own sensitivity and their own experiences,” he said

Carnes’ latest endeavor involves the contemporary transformation of classic works of art dating back to the Renaissance era. Carnes analyzes the geometric structures in famous Renaissance paintings and Baroque tapestries. He then interprets the shapes, colors, lines and patterns into a larger work of art using the reductionist grid pattern. Although he is aware of the historical context of each painting that he depicts, he chooses to focus more on the technical aspects of the work instead of the original themes.

He said he aims to communicate with the viewer using bold colors, shapes, lines, implied movement and depth, instead of concentrating on the subject matter — religion, war, historic figures and events. He is, in effect, transforming 400-year-old paintings into a more contemporary perspective.

“I’m looking for images that excite me, not for the underlying story, but just visually and compositionally. Then I go from there. Sometimes I finish and ask, how do I look at it? What do I get back from it?”

Going forward, Carnes intends to create larger versions of his favorite small rectangular paintings within the grid pattern. He is also collaborating with local jazz musician David Lawlor to create works of art based on musical compositions. He encourages other artists to indulge their creativity and love for the craft while perpetuating the “grand tradition of making imagery.” Carnes said he’ll continue his abstract evolution as an artist.

“You start out with nothing and you work day after day and you build it up and at the end, you have something that didn’t exist before. It may get ripped up because it didn’t work. But when it works, it’s pretty exciting. That’s enough to keep me going.”

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