Henri Matisse’s paintings are deliriously appealing, yet neither their attractiveness nor their brilliance entirely explains their success.
Finding the words to explain it eludes even most experts. Words, after all, follow ideas. Words must be recognized, which can happen only if you’ve been there before. Matisse’s paintings take us down paths as yet unblazed by words.
It’s easy to describe, for example, “The Joy of Life” (1906), which many consider to be his Fauvist masterpiece. It’s a bacchanal, a pastoral landscape with a dozen cavorting nudes rendered loosely in bold primary and secondary colors. It’s far harder to explain why the painting has such an effect on the viewer – or why it’s great. That requires shifting realms from the objectivity of description to the subjective, complex realm of aesthetics, empathy, style and taste.
Maine painter Henry Isaacs is essentially a contemporary Fauvist. In fact, one of the strongest works in “Finding Values,” now on view at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, is a direct response to Andre Derain’s 1906 Fauvist masterpiece “The Turning Road, L’Estaque” at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Isaacs’ “Pond at Swan’s Island” is his own painting. There are no figures, no road, more space and less saturated colors. But the relationship between the two paintings is easy to feel, the way “Pond at Swan’s Island” shifts down to the lower right through the trees and folds back into the scene to create an invisible oval flow.
Another painting in the exhibition, “Cove at Swan’s Island” is closer in palette to “The Turning Road, L’Estaque,” and it shares the Swan’s Island ovalesque swirl. But while we recognize (and feel) Derain in both these compositions, when you compare them side by side, it’s obvious that Isaacs did not borrow directly or literally. What binds the works is not a shape or even a composition, but a specific rhythm that almost pumps the eye around the scene. It’s apparent, but almost indescribably so.
The word “Fauve” comes from the French for “beast,” which indicates the movement was intentionally non-linguistic from the start: Beasts, after all, don’t speak.
The title of the exhibit, “Finding Values,” refers both to color values and moral values. The colors are bold and joyful. The scenes dance with light, open space and jaunty rhythms. Isaacs shares with Matisse a visual intelligence that requires no explanation. It is self-evident.
The intensity of Fauvist colors announces their subjectivity. The viewer immediately understands that the hues are artistic choices, not accurate descriptions. Isaacs, like the Fauves, wants us to see a painting before we see the scene. Landscape is transportive – it takes us to the there-and-then – but painterly modernism is all about the here-and-now experience of perception (here I am, looking at a painting).
The Fauves, with their intentional nod to impossible colors, may have been the first avant-garde group to broadcast the here/there toggle with undeniable clarity. Rembrandt, too, targeted both representation and painting, but representation always had the upper hand. The Impressionists opened the door for the Fauves, but their pixelizing of light was based in an objective scientific understanding of perception, not in artistic subjectivity.
Isaacs’ stroke-present works start with easy appeal, which he uses to open the door to smarter, and sometimes darker, things. He gives us sunlit sailboats in a color-dappled harbor. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying his tufty strokes, buoyant color and neutral-quilted skies. In fact, it’s a mistake to discount Isaacs’ ability to make something so appealing with just a few saturated strokes among low-contrast patches of sky, sea and land. His small works, in this vein, are particularly revealing – and appealing.
But what drew my eye was the left side of about six of the 20 canvases on display in “Finding Values” where, bizarrely, the structure dissolves. “Off Scarborough Beach” is typical of these, not only for the hazy left edge, but also because the horizon line is intentionally off-kilter.
I had recently seen Dozier Bell’s excellent show now up at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, and looking at Isaacs’ canvases, my mind went straight to her work, which features landscapes seen through invisible military targeting devices, like the tilted horizon of a torpedo-struck submarine.
“Cannon Rock #1” is a dazzling Fauvist coastal scene in which a fog floats in from the left. Winslow Homer fans may recognize this point as the spot from which Homer so often painted on Prouts Neck, and the fog-covered sun as an allusion to Homer’s seminal “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog” (1894). Isaacs’ dissolving left sides are both metaphoric and historically engaged. But what is the message? Are we watching Homer fall to Fauvism? Or the opposite? Is it death? Or chaos? Isaacs’ painterly world has always been bright and happy, but here he delivers a questioning edge. Is it a rising dark power? A cultural cancer? A perception of political chaos? Or, perhaps, many of these at once?
Isaacs is joined in his show by his friend and Portland artist Daniel Minter, whose powerful works effectively use the small side gallery to enlarge their sense of combustive potential. Five of Minter’s paintings include the word “passage” in their titles, and they feature forms of a simplified boat and a henna-style, white line-decorated African-featured head. “Untroubled Passage” also shows a fish within the white decorative lines. At first, these symbols and metaphors telegraph that death doesn’t frighten the untroubled mind. But in the context of the several African-related passage images, the boat form is inescapably bound to slave ships. It’s a disturbing scenario, but Minter maintains the spiritual sovereignty of the individuals who had to endure this hellish plight.
Juxtaposed with Minter’s works, Isaacs’ formless edge takes on a dangerous darkness.
Minter hides his revolutionary qualities in a jungle of decorative logic and visual appeal – but only temporarily. His images of transformation seem to be even keeled, such as “Waiting for Omolu” or “The Weight of Passage.” But in the context of his acrylic wash “Cotton Series” – what look like sepia drawings of individual blooms of cotton plants – Minter’s dark edge crystallizes into something explosive. The white/dark monochrome drawings are beautiful and organic, yet appear as flashes of light popping from the pod-like bolls that contained them.
Minter’s and Isaacs’ works share several unexpected qualities. Most notably, both take decorative logic very seriously, Isaacs with appealing color, Minter through pulsating, rhythmic phalanxes of white lines.
For both artists, “Finding Values” is a poignant departure. Minter’s paintings are no less spiritual than usual, but his mystical inclinations feel held in abeyance while he considers darker moral questions. Isaacs, too, seems to be in a moment of moral ambivalence. His predilection for joy is there, but it’s somehow threatened.
I want to believe that Minter and Isaacs are sparking new fires to mitigate the darkness they see.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: