Saturday, August 25, 2018

Tom Hall at Corey Daniels Gallery

Maine artist Tom Hall makes stark, apparently simple yet quite complex, mostly black and white paintings that deliver a visceral jolt of recognition - these aren’t paintings descriptive of Maine, they’re evocations of what Maine is and what it feels like to confront its landscape as a reflection of our troubled relationship to the natural world. 

Hall lives in a tiny house and studio on Sebago Lake, Maine. It’s 1,000 square feet, with every nook prioritized for an artist’s life and work. “I call it,” he told interviewer Angela Adams, “to paraphrase Le Corbusier…the great Swiss-French architect…a ‘Machine for making Art.’ I live alone so I can maximize my energy, and can focus on making the work. I see it much like a monk serving a greater good.”

Tom Hall's house on Sebago Lake.

Tom Hall in his studio

That "greater good," I'd argue, is to invoke our strained relationship with the earth. Hall's palette is that of what Ruskin called "the two Eternities" of "the Vacancy and the Rock" pitted against transitory manifestations, the colored gradations of clouds, sunsets, and storms. A good number depict a dark "last stand" of trees stranded at the edge of an inky void, a field empty but for the bleak stubble of clearcutting.

Hall’s newest paintings, a series of landscapes taking Mount Katahdin and Monhegan Island as motifs, are on exhibit this month at Corey Daniels Gallery on Route 1 in Wells, Maine. In an accompanying gallery text, Hall calls Monhegan and Katahdin “rugged landscapes, hard scrabble and taciturn… yet full of beauty and wonder. Much like native Mainers themselves, Henry David Thoreau once said that ‘only the daring and insolent perchance go there.’ Thoreau of course was referring to Mount Katahdin, but it just as well could have been Monhegan he was talking about.”


Monhegan (detail of above)

Monhegan - Detail

With that painting of Monhegan (above), Hall is heir to perhaps the greatest Maine artist of the 20th century, Marsden Hartley. Note the similarity in composition and the treatment of the foreground rocks. Both artists are getting to the raw reality in the most primitive, un-sophisticated way. 

Marsden Hartley, After the Storm, Vinalhaven, 1938-1939
It is the landscape of his childhood, one of “dirt roads, dusty and dangerous, with overloaded log trucks rumbling by,” he recalls. “My grandfather was always saying, ‘Look, there’s Katahdin!’ And out the jeep window… northeast across the great central plains of Maine … hiding behind Big and Little Spencer… was Katahdin… a vague and mysterious blue beyond.”

One of Hall's Katahdin paintings

These are large paintings; you interact with them in a personal, physical manner.

Instead of impeccably engineered user-friendly serenity (footnote: see Simon Schama on John Virtue) Hall’s paintings give us the rain-slick rocks and burnt-match blacks of backlit pines and dwellings, humped mountains, and tide-lashed islands at dusk and on on gray-sky days. They are also very beautiful. They have an talismanic, object-like quality, extensively layered, scraped and worked-over as they are. 

Detail from above

Detail from above

That quality is described perfectly by Art historian Daniel Kany, writing for the Portland Press Herald, who called Hall, “one of Maine’s best artists. [His] is the stuff of greatness.” Here is Kany:

"We tend to think that painting is always just a representation, a fiction. But that is not a universal concept.

In Eastern Christianity, icons are sacred objects. Formline art of Northwest Native Americans is the vehicle of genuine numinous power.

We could talk about Tanka paintings, Zen calligraphy and so on, but the point is that paintings have long and widely been seen as conduits for forces not limited to the visible world. They aren’t simply snapshots of something else.

Traditionally, this has been associated with religion or spirituality. But postwar American painting such as Abstract Expressionism has been more like a practice in which your consciousness and your body encounter a thing which is a catalyst for pleasing self-awareness…. This is how Hall’s best paintings achieve the power of mandalas or paintings by Rothko, Malevich, Ad Reinhardt or Barnet Newman."

There's a stripped-down, essential quality to the work, and though the shapes are simple, the surfaces are masterfully handled. As others have noted, none of these paintings would be out of place in an exhibition of abstract expressionism. Hall's paintings are executed in mixed media, which includes water-based paints and varnishes, charcoal, paper collage, duct tape, and other materials on canvas or linen. His practice is to sketch in pastel on site and work up the large paintings later, in the studio. Apparently the Monhegan sketches lay in storage for a number of years, until Hall “felt up to the challenge” of making the larger work. In contrast, the Katahdin sketches he did last fall at Katahdin Lake. 

detail from above


Go see the show in person if you can! Photographs don't convey the authenticity or the raw power of this work.