Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Early on in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael encounters a strange painting hanging in The Spouter-Inn, an old tavern in New Bedford. “Thoroughly besmoked,” all he can see in it at first are “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows," as if it were a picture of “chaos bewitched.” 

But the painting soon resolves into an even more puzzling composition, featuring “a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the center of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly,” he calls it, but he can’t help speculating about what it might represent: 

"It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. – It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. – It’s a blasted heath. – It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. – It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time.” 

Ishmael finds the painting’s key in “that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain….” and at last decides that “The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.”

I was fascinated by the description, and wanted to try to make this painting, so I Googled it to see if it had already been done. I found a blog suggesting that of all the 19th century painters likely to have painting something like what Melville describes, there is J.M.W. Turner

and 19th c. American “visionary” painter Albert Pinkham Ryde. Eitehr would be an excellent candidate to have provided the model for the Spouter-Inn painting. 

As longtime readers may recall, I’d been blogging already about Ryder and his use of unconventional substances in his paintings, in particular his notorious use of tar. So I tried my hand at Melville's fictitious painting, in tar. 

Purposing to Spring Clean Over the Craft, 2015, tar and oil paint on canvas
That initial effort led to “Loomings,” a series combining oil paint, tar, and sometimes gold leaf. Titled after the first chapter of Melville’s apocalyptic vision of the American quest, the series piggybacks on a darker, under-recognized counter-tradition in American art and literature, one referred to by Clement Greenberg (writing of Jackson Pollock’s early work) as “that American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, Poe.” This lineage, to which we could add numerous other American artists and writers (19th century landscapist Ralph Albert Blakelock, Emily Dickinson, late Rothko and Barnett Newman, and contemporary novelist Cormac McCarthy come to mind) winds like a stark thread through the history of American arts and letters. 

Any Human Thing ("I promise nothing complete;  because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty"), 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

All of the paintings' titles refer to a line or chapter-heading from Moby-Dick. They owe a lot to the gestural abstraction I admire in Abstract-Expressionists like Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline. By loading them with ambiguous, yet at times metaphoric or archetypal imagery, I hope to connect the abstraction to nature, ideas, and emotion. 

The medium itself, appropriated from the industrial world, points to the triumphs as well as the failings of modern human achievement, including, through its association with fossil fuel burning, accelerating climate change. (“Metaphor is always created out of materiality,” says painter and writer Enrique Martinez Celaya, “not the other way around.”)

Acushnet (Melville's brig), 48 x 36 inches, tar on canvas
Ryder, the one American painter that Pollock revered, is a major influence on the “Loomings” series, in terms of both medium and motif. 

T'Gallant Sails, 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

Like Ryder’s marines, many of the “Loomings” paintings depict solitary ships on unquiet, or disquieting seas. I agree with Phong Bui, who wrote of Ryder in the Brooklyn Rail, “Ryder’s unique vision is as important to American painting as Herman Melville’s to American literature” (and, I’d add, as important as Pollock’s is to contemporary practice). I'm drawing from all of these important strains of American art and literature.

* * *

Flukes, 24 x 36 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

In our time, petroleum oil, from which the tar I use is derived, is the successor to whale oil and the object of our own largely self-destructive, Ahab-like quest. Industry bellwether Oil Market Report forecasts world demand will reach 100 million barrels a day in Q4 2018. Meanwhile the atmospheric concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has surpassed 405 ppm, higher than at any time during the existence of humanity, with consequences yet to be known. 

Leviathan ("Surely all this is not without meaning"), 48 x 60 inches

Moby-Dick is the cautionary epic myth of America. Melville is our Milton, our Shakespeare, holding up the mirror of art to our problematic desire for more and more consumption and the incessant domination of nature even at our own expense. They’re also about what Melville refers to as “the inscrutable,” that is, the problem of representing reality itself: “That inscrutableness is chiefly that I hate,” says Ahab.

Westward II, 17 x 24 inches, oil paint, tar, gold leaf on canvas

Melville already in 1851 recognized American industrial history as a never-ending pursuit of wealth and the domination of "savage" nature by the “all-grasping Western world." 

Dive ("Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked from the skies and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!"), 48 x 60 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

However, the works are not intended to be either narrative or predominantly political, much less to illustrate the novel. The paintings, like the book, are for me largely about the confrontation of our own ignorance, our melancholy quest for knowledge, reality, and enlightenment in an "inscrutable" universe.  

To the Sea in Ships, 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas, private collection

I hope that “Loomings" invites viewers to reflect upon our moment in Western history, to examine our aspirations and our limits, and on the archetypal level, to stop and consider our relationship to ourselves, each other, and to the earth itself.

Corpos Santos - the Saint Elmo's Fire ("Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast they incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief"), oil paint, tar, gold leaf on canvas, private collection
Abysm, 48 x 60 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas
“But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” - Melville, from Moby Dick, the Loomings chapter

The Muffled Rolling of a Milky Sea, 36 x 36 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

* * *

Paintings from the "Loomings" series are currently being exhibited in three separate locations: 

PLUNGE (group show, three paintings), New Bedford Museum of Art
May 26 - Oct. 8, 2017

Signs & Wonders (selections), lobby of the John Joseph Moakley Federal Building, Boston
July 4 - Oct. 15, 2017

LOOMINGS (solo show), Taylor Gallery, Kimball Union Academy
Sept. 8 - Oct. 14, 2017
 (opening reception 9/8, 5:30-7p.m.)

* * *

Works from the series have won the St. Botolph Club's "Outstanding Painting" award for 2017 and received the venerable Boston art organization's Nellie Taft Grant for visual arts.


  1. Wonderful paintings, so moving. Loved the concept too.

  2. Incredible. I just finished reading Moby Dick, and of course my mind lingered on that mysterious painting, which in turn led me here. Even from a screen, your paintings seem to absorb and confront you in a hard-to-describe way. Thank you for sharing your work on an accessible medium like a blog. I'm eager to see your work in person.

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  5. I’m so glad you wrote and explored this. My all-time favorite book is “the heart of the sea” which was the real accounts from the tragedy of the Essex. I just started reading Moby Dick and stopped at the painting.

    I did exactly what you did, searching to see if someone tried to recreate this before trying it myself. I think your incorporation of tar is so creative and relevant. It captures the feeling so well.

    Thank you again.

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