This essay appears in the catalog Craig Mooney: Lore of the Sea for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, July 19-August 7, 2014.
Craig Mooney: Forward Movement
Spurred by an ascending Modernism, the pitter patter of art movements that rambled through the twentieth century left a mess at the art world’s door. If it could be painted, it had been painted; every conceivable style, approach, and method was exhausted. Painting has been declared dead and reincarnated so many times, that proclamations of its demise have become the stalwarts of lazy art critics and curators thirsty for attention. In reality, some painting movements have lost their utility. The white-on-white Minimalism that rocked the art world in 1951 no longer redefines our understanding of painting. We can no longer mine meaning from the dramatic application of paint to canvas which entertained the Lyrical Abstractionists of the 1970s. Post- and neo-revivals where artist’s attempt to resuscitate antiquated painting methods, while briefly entertaining, fail to sustain a meaningful approach to the medium. Where painting is moving forward is where artists are taking the lessons of past movements—the very best of visual strategy and technique—and putting those ideas in the service of new images. The collage of visual language expressed in paint is the future of painting and where some of the very best work is being done today. Craig Mooney is a case in point.
The bedrock of Mooney’s approach to painting starts, as all paintings do, with an abstraction of the subject to its most basic forms: land or water, horizon, sky or, in the case of figurative work, torso and head situated in the geometric forms of a scene. By under-developing aspects of his paintings, Mooney uses Minimalism to connect with the viewer who must fill in the blanks with his own experience. He builds intimacy between the viewer and the painting by using brush strokes and color work to highlight detail. For example, the dabs of orange and white in Inlet offer the viewer a visual scavenger hunt with which they can explore the painting. Lastly, Mooney combines a variety of styles—American Realism à la the Ashcan School, European Impressionism, and color and atmosphere catching pochades—with a contemporary use of blur that connects the viewer to a truth that transcends the subject, the viewer, and the painting itself.
In the collection of paintings presented in this catalog, one sees the evolution of Mooney’s practice. In his earlier cityscapes and figurative work, Mooney painted from the ground, from the viewpoint of a person merely feet away from the scene. This perspective can be seen in the figurative pieces Coastline Remembered and Call of the Sea and the landscape Day Sail, where the viewer looks out across the water to see sailboats dotting the horizon. But in Harbor Town or Day’s Catch, the perspective is that of someone hovering in the air. This compositional technique was pioneered by Andrew Wyeth in such seminal works as Soaring and continued by Andrew’s son Jamie in his paintings from Monhegan Island. Mooney’s use of this technique gives his paintings a mystical, fantastical quality as the viewer is asked to reference a point of view somewhere between aerial photography and a downward swooping cinematic shot. The result is a heightened sense of drama. This is particularly powerful in Harbor Town where, like the beginning of a movie, the viewer is poised to descend into a seaside village and the myriad of stories, secrets, and experiences found there. It is a gorgeous exposition with all the promise of climax and dénouement.
Recently, Mooney spent a few weeks in Paris with nothing to do but visit museums. He found himself returning to the Louvre and, in particular, to J.M.W. Turner’s Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance. The 1840s oil painting is a delicate work in beige, browns, and soft blues; though, because of the artist’s use of carmine, the colors seen today are most likely a faded version of what Turner originally painted. Nevertheless, the painting shows Turner’s remarkable ability to capture atmosphere. A mist descends onto the valley where the river meets the bay, gently obscuring the hills across the water as blue sky breaks through the top right corner. Turner was a romantic painter and a forerunner of Impressionism. For him, the subject was not the scene as he saw it, but the emotional dynamism as he experienced it. Mooney’s response was, “that was something I would like to do.”
The incorporation of Turner-inspired technique into Mooney’s blend of painting has yielded incredible results. Now Voyager is perhaps the closest to that style. A solitary ship moves into a vast fiery mist. Now Voyager is remarkable in that it has no horizon, no line that separates the water from the sky. The sailboat moves into the painting as if it is mid-ascension into the heavens. In Sailor’s Delight II, Mooney works from deep blues in the foreground to brilliant oranges, as the sky is reflected on the water. The clouds catch the sun in a radiant display of light. This masterful application of Turner-esque technique marries well with Mooney’s other visual strategies: the near abstraction of the land, the minimalist rendering of the boat, the dramatic perspective.
As he continues to evolve as a painter, as he continues to develop and add to his toolbox of techniques, Mooney will continue to make intense, dramatic paintings that deliver to the viewer the best of what painting can offer us. The works in this catalog are a wonderful beginning.