Space of mind
Two painters offer new interpretations of landscape traditions
By Victoria Dalkey
BEE ART CORRESPONDENT
“I am like the earth about twenty-three degrees off, which gives me summer and winter moods, sheds hopes and sprouts them again: what are my hopes: it’s hard to tell what an abstract poet wants.”
br> -from “Sphere” by A.R. Ammons
It’s equally hard to tell what an abstract painter wants, if the painter is Tom Monteith. His large acrylic abstractions at Jay Jay are based in landscape but plunge the viewer into untracked territory that stems from symbolic and private emotional responses to nature. Mixing fluorescent greens and yellows with earth colors, he paints a world in conflict with itself, a world at once radiant and despoiled, a world of benign and malignant competing forces.
Like Ammons, Monteith has summer and winter moods, often simultaneously. “Solar system,” a long horizontal painting with sequential yet seemingly unrelated vignettes, unfolds like a Chinese scroll. Moving from screaming, acid greens to earthy tones and gray areas, it keeps your eye moving. But when you reach the end of the journey, you’re not sure where you’ve been.
In “in recline: earth island,” Monteith follows a similar format, but the relationships between the areas—choppy off-white waters, a dark sea with a bright yellow vessel emerging from a black wreckage, gray and blue abstract forms—seem a bit more closely related. They form a near narrative, albeit an arcane one. The painting nevertheless reveals a sense of wonder and drama, a mixture of foreboding and the sublime in what might be a contemporary take on the heroic landscapes of Albert Bierstadt.
Powerful forces collide and clash in “orbit,” a large vertical canvas with striking passages of orange and blue and a ghostly heaven inhabited by suggestions of figurative forms. It is as if the top half of the picture were hidden by a scrim that if pulled aside would reveal some mystery, though it is impossible to guess what it might be. Similarly enigmatic is the puzzling “concentered blue: oasis,” whose title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem.
A dark sense of threat broken by a radiant blue at the center of the canvas informs “in recline: earth island (osiris).” The title refers to the Egyptian god of the underworld whose body was cut up by his evil brother and strewn in all directions before being gathered up and put back together by his wife, Isis. In Monteith’s painting, black, which is the color of Osiris, boils up turbulently around the reclining figure of the god whose all-seeing eye emits light and offers hope.
A series of earlier works, more clearly based in landscape, and a pair of plein-air paintings of figures in a wooded gorge near Big Sur round out the show. The small, plein-air paintings make one think of Cezanne in their subtle color and solid cubistic structure, and leave one wishing for more. While Monteith’s large abstractions are ambitious both in scale and complexity, these small works have a refreshing directness missing in some of his larger works. His most recent paintings are demanding and to a certain extent confusing, but they are worth the effort of trying to understand them.
. . . . .
(Sunday, March 21, 2004 * The Sacramento Bee)