Perspectives: No Conflict with Abstraction

By Eric Ernst

For the larger portion of the viewing public, representationalism and abstraction have always been considered mutually exclusive realms of artistic expression--based on the idea that a landscape painter is only attempting to re-create the reality of the moment while an abstractionist attempts to divine a world of imagination of their own making.

This misconception was expressed more than 50 years ago in an exchange between Andre Breton and Piet Mondrian, when the Vicar of Surrealism stated that abstraction was meant solely to "cleanse the vision completely of the irrational and that, of course, means dreams as well as reality."

In the work of Newton Haydn Stubbing currently on exhibit at the Nabi Gallery in Sag Harbor, however, the judgmental inaccuracy of this statement becomes instantly apparent, as one can see in this artist’s work a profound expression of nature abstracted through a haze that is both dreamlike and real at the same time. In essence, the artist has created an atmospheric re-creation of the world around us that is, at bottom, nothing less than a surreal and abstract perception of reality itself.

Consisting of watercolors and drawings dating from 1953 through 1982, as well as 14 oil paintings, the Nabi show offers a broad stylistic representation of Stubbing’s work that includes landscape scenes from both England and Long Island, still-lifes, and sketches of seashells, birds, fish and animals.

Many of the sketches, while apparently studies for larger works, are in and of themselves fascinating, both for Stubbing’s obviously advanced draftsmanship and for the insights they serve up about the artist’s influences. Going all the way back to his developmental early years spent in Spain, elements of Goya are particularly noticeable in these studies in the sharp and confident use of line. Meanwhile, the feel the artist demonstrates for majestically low-key horizons and clouds is reminiscent of both Corot and Constable.

There is also a certain feeling of detached whimsy that is especially apparent in many of the works, such as a 1953 watercolor and charcoal study of a series of ducks and a watercolor and pencil image of a crayfish from 1982. This rather bemused objectivity is also present in a watercolor and pencil entitled "Stonehenge" from 1980 that balances a playful use of perspective and a rather elegant shadowing on the monuments in the mid-ground distance.

Included among the watercolors and drawings is also a fascinating series of semi-abstract compositions which the artist referred to as "ceremonials." Simultaneously redolent of the spirituality of Rothko and the delicate color sense of Diebenkorn, these pieces are of particular importance as bridges connecting the viewer to the artist’s desire to reflect nature more as a feeling and visual sensation rather than merely a concrete re-creation of a particular scene.

"Dark Winter Field" presents a hauntingly arid and lonely landscape whose sense of solitude is underscored by the horizontal structural composition that is weighted toward the bottom of the piece. The emptiness is emphasized in a lack of subject matter stretching to the horizon and beyond that makes the work seem simultaneously both silent and windswept.

Another of these "ceremonials," entitled "#34" from 1973, is noteworthy for its almost overt sense of uplifting spirituality. The color development from the foreground into the work is especially appealing, and one is left with an appreciation for the artist’s ability to express dedication to structure and conceptual development without sacrificing spontaneity.

It is in the larger oil canvases, however, that one can see Stubbing’s abilities and the influence of his antecedents best displayed. Among these, the sensibilities of many great Spanish painters are clearly apparent and are reminiscent of Velasquez and El Greco through the use of black as more than simply an agent for peripheral shadowing. These works manage to be mysterious without being menacing and they reflect a sense of nature that is monumental and yet still placid and calm.

"Findhorn River Legend" from 1982 is illustrative of this and illuminates the artist’s ability to express his surroundings without necessarily being dedicated to re-creating them. By applying the central images in black and other dark colors and then completely overpainting with lighter washes, the artist achieves a misty sheen which makes it seem as if one were viewing a looming stand of trees through a thick early morning haze. There is detail but it is partially hidden, leaving the viewer essentially with an impression of reality, much as in Monet’s water lily paintings from Giverny.

The same could be said of "Valley Smoke," which is perhaps the most elegant and understated of the oil on canvas works in the exhibition. There is an unmistakable air of serenity to the scene and yet, beneath the surface lurks a certain tension in the composition that manages to be visually arresting.

The exhibition at Nabi Gallery continues through November 19.

Issue Date: Southampton Press 10/05/00

Reprinted courtesy of The Southampton

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