This essay appears in the catalog “Daniel J. Corey & Abbie Williams: New Works” for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, June 28 – July 17, 2014.
The Emotional Registry of American Art
This catalog and accompanying exhibition of new work by Daniel J. Corey and Abbie Williams offers an opportunity to take in the work of two Maine artists whose paintings are deeply connected to the communities in which they live and work. Corey lives in Bristol and paints around the Midcoast of Maine. Williams’ studio is in a lush wood in Nobleboro and she paints regularly from Monhegan and in Taos, New Mexico. Not only do they offer an exemplary collection of paintings, they are remarkable examples of contemporary American artists.
Before the 20th century, America had no art it could truly call its own. Painters worked their craft. Sculptors built their works. But their skill and training was rooted in a European tradition, informed by the continent’s aesthetic whims. Careers rose and fell in the cities of London and Paris, far, far away from Upstate New York, the Heartland, or New England. New York City, the art capital of America, traded largely in European artists, or American artists who expatriated themselves to France to study with the masters. This is just how it was.
After World War I, as America’s stature began to rise on the international stage, its identity at home also evolved. A great debate took place between the champions of European art and those who argued for an idea of American art. As Grant Wood explained in his 1935 pamphlet, Revolt Against the City, “painting has declared its independence from Europe, and is retreating from the cities to the more American village and country life. Paris is no longer the Mecca of the American artist. The American public, which used to be interested solely in foreign and imitative work, has readily acquired a strong interest in the distinctly indigenous art of its own land.” And for a brief moment, American art reached across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, and included all the fields, prairies, and mountains in between.
This moment did not last long. At nearly the same time that America was finding its voice, a new kind of art was emerging, one that would redefine the viewer’s relationship to artwork and liberate the artist into a free zone of thinking and expression. Modernism was a philosophical, cross-media evolution in human culture that worked off the premise that traditional forms of culture were no longer capable of addressing modern, industrial life. New ways of thinking, a new culture, had to emerge. The discussion was no longer about how a painter could abstract his subject. Modernism negated the need for a subject all together, allowing the artist total freedom of expression. A great debate on the role of Modernism in American art took place between pro-Modernist critics and artists in New York and Regionalist, Social Realist painters from the Heartland, like Grant Wood. Backed by the economic and political power of New York City, the Modernists won the argument and American art would be forever synonymous with Modernism. As America rose to dominate international affairs, in light of the Cold War, Modern art—and its subsequent offspring: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Lyrical Abstraction, etc.—would define Western civilization’s experience of art throughout the 20th century. American art, defined by the New York art scene, became indistinguishable from the global contemporary art found in the galleries of London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, and more recently, Beijing and Dubai.
But a distinct American art did not go away. In the rainy mountains of the Northwest, in the deserts of New Mexico, along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and New England, artists continued to make work that spoke about and to families and neighbors. They painted the world in which they lived, as they experienced it. They built sculpture with materials that came from the land around them. They photographed the people and places they called home. It is from this tradition of American art that Corey and Williams work.
Williams paints dramatic scenes of the rich landscapes she finds “while painting outdoors, painting in my studio or while I’m prowling around Maine’s uncommonly visited corners with my camera.” Blueberry Fields shows the fiery light of the setting sun blazing across a wild field. Williams renders this scene in fierce reds and oranges that show her fearless use of color. A soft ridge of green runs along the top, which is backlit by mauve mountains that fade into a blue-grey sky. One can see this delicate color play in the backgrounds of many of Williams’ paintings: the yellow and grey strokes above the trees in Clary Hill Farm; or in the soft magenta that appears like a cloud above the birds in Follow the Wind. These are not simply the colors observed by an astute artist; they are the subtle threads that make up the quilt of memories of those places we call home.
Corey’s paintings are a beautiful marriage of the Ashcan School of Social Realism and the Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art. Ashcan artists were concerned with showing daily life of real people and tended to skew what they saw as a “genteel tradition” in visual art. The Impressionism of the Cape Cod School of Art is informed by its founder, Charles Webster Hawthorne, who was, in turn, influenced by one of the great American Impressionists, William Merritt Chase. Steadfastly committed to painting en plein air, this particular tradition informs Corey’s use of luscious oils and rich colors, but when married with the Ashcan tradition, the result is work that teeters between romanticism and veracity while avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia. Yard Truck shows a classic rural moment: the neighbor who allows his dead truck to become a lawn ornament, overgrown with weed and shrub as it rusts away. Corey renders this scene with a classic impressionist technique of loose brush strokes and vibrant color, but he doesn’t shy away from the reality of the truck. He uses a quick stroke of black for the rear view mirror and three strokes of different reds for the tail lights. The result is beautiful rendition of a familiar scene, elevated and celebrated.
This sort of emotional registry only comes from culture made by the people with whom we share our lives and land.
This is American art.