The Stuff of Tales
THE CANVAS – January 2013
By Britta Konau
With painting styles that differ widely, Nancy Morgan Barnes, William B. Hoyt, and Tollef Runquist all consider still lifes to be important parts of their oeuvre. Their work in the genre is of a special kind: narrative and personal. Using objects of private significance in their arrangements, the artists tell more or less transparent stories but always leave enough interpretive room for viewers to imagine narratives of their own.
NANCY MORGAN BARNES
After many years of teaching art at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and the Indiana University Bloomington, Nancy Morgan Barnes retired in Maine. In recent years she has participated in group shows in Columbus, Georgia, and Toronto, Ontario, as well as all over Maine. In 2010 she had a solo exhibition at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Barnes has won numerous merit awards and prizes, including a Good Idea Grant from the Maine Arts Commission. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Indiana University Art Museum and Indiana State Museum. Barnes lives in an old sea captain’s house in Searsport. She is represented by the Greenhut Galleries in Portland, gWatson Gallery in Stonington, and Beaux-Arts des Amériques in Montreal.
Nancy Morgan Barnes’s paintings radiate a sense of time, not only because they engage in old-fashioned storytelling but also because of their richly worked surfaces. In a very labor-intensive process the artist uses brushes, scrapers, rags, and sandpaper to manipulate her medium, resulting in images that are painterly and descriptive at the same time. Barnes depicts genre scenes of work on the waterfront, of fellow artists painting, and of popular entertainment including boxing matches and circuses. While presented realistically, some of her scenes have incongruous and fantastical elements. Others incorporate small or rather big disasters, ranging from the dropping of a birthday cake to a twister hitting a big-box store. Disasters, to the artist, “are springboards for change.”
Small calamities also appear in Barnes’s mysterious still lifes. She has painted still lifes throughout her career, but in the past few years they have assumed a more poetic and narrative character, imaginings of what happens when man-made and natural worlds collide. Like many of Barnes’s still lifes, Writer’s Block centers on an old piece of machinery that is personally significant to the artist and for which she creates a natural habitat. The Underwood typewriter that served as the model belonged to her mother, who used it for her bookkeeping. In the painting it has become the home of a mouse, an inchworm, a snail, and two bees—creatures that are known either for their agility or for their slowness. As if suspended between these two extremes of time, Barnes’s “fable without a moral” unfolds, and viewers can bring their own stories and memories to the work. These intriguing still lifes may not overtly moralize, but the artist envisions in them how we move through life: “You can’t control everything, although a painter really would like to. When misadventures happen you have to deal with them and move on,” she says.
Writer’s Block, 2012, oil on canvas, 16.5″ x 18″
WILLIAM B. HOYT
William B. Hoyt grew up with a mother who was a portrait painter and a photographer father—early influences that have had a profound effect on his work. His artwork is regularly shown in galleries throughout New England and is included in numerous private collections. The former MBNA corporation (now part of Bank of America) holds around 300 of his paintings. Hoyt is represented by Maine Art Paintings and Sculpture in Kennebunkport, the Green Mountain Fine Art Gallery in Stowe, Vermont, and the Arnold Art Store and Gallery in Newport, Rhode Island.
During the 1960s, abstract expressionism was the predominant style in art schools, but William B. Hoyt really wanted to paint like Andrew Wyeth, whose representational dry-brush watercolors he greatly admired. Nevertheless, while finding his own style, Hoyt invested a lot of time and effort into not painting like Wyeth. Now long past art school and with a signature approach of his own, Hoyt’s seasonal whereabouts determine his subjects and to a certain degree his style as well.
Hoyt’s marine landscapes are coastal scenes from the unusual vantage point of the sea. Hoyt has been sailing since childhood, often in the waters off the coast of Maine, and until recently has spent two months each year on a boat. He initially captured his coastal views in watercolors, but since the 1990s Hoyt has photographed them for future exploration in paint. His panoramic landscapes of Vermont, where he currently lives, are also based on multiple photographs that the artist manipulates into a coherent scene. When painting one of these views in his studio, Hoyt refers to the final photographic image on a computer screen attached to his easel, zooming in and out of the image as he paints. “I look at the photograph as if it were reality,” Hoyt explains.
In wintertime, the artist concentrates on narrative still lifes of arrangements that are half found and half planned. The resultant paintings often feature an image within an image, thematizing representation itself. When using this compositional device, Hoyt feels “you are not stuck within an image but can go from one to the other and make associations. It is fun to indulge myself in that.” Woman with Her Winchester incorporates a teapot that was a wedding present to the artist’s parents and that he now uses daily. In this kitchen scene it also serves as a technical challenge to render reflection, just as the cellophane covering the strawberries on the windowsill becomes an opportunity for transparency. But the focal point of this composition is the representation of a black-and-white photograph of a woman proudly holding a rifle, her conquests displayed on the wall behind. Just as this woman seems utterly sincere in her dedication to hunting, Hoyt finds joy in convincingly rendering his subjects. “I am very attached to the reproductive act of painting,” he explains.
Woman with Her Winchester, 2011, oil on canvas, 26″ x 20″
Born in Sharon, Connecticut, to a Norwegian mother and a Swedish father who is also a painter, Runquist encountered the power of the artistic imagination early in his life. At age 16, he participated in a group show at the Paris New York Kent Gallery in Kent, Connecticut. Having spent summers in Maine all his life, Runquist moved here in 2003 looking for a fair amount of solitude and a supportive art community. Runquist shows regularly at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland and the Ober Gallery in Kent, Connecticut.
ollef Runquist’s work encompasses a range of subjects and styles. As the artist explains it, “I feel no particular loyalty to realism or my own past work.” He has painted scenes in local towns, narrative still lifes, interiors, and representations of strongly patterned textiles, working on all simultaneously. What ties these subjects together is the artist’s graphic rendering of flattened space and a blithe and loose application of paint that, rather than depicting its subjects, seems to abbreviate them with a few quick strokes of the brush. Runquist clearly loves the physicality of paint and emotional power of color. Splatters, drips, and compositional changes are left visible as evidence of the artist’s hand and mind. Lately, he has extended his pictorial elements and interests to include patterns and repetitions, suffusing his work with a decorative quality.
Since 2011 Runquist has executed still lifes of chaotic arrangements of toys—sections of the artist’s seven-year-old son’s play areas in which Legos, toy cars, stuffed animals, and wooden train tracks all coexist in a careless and carefree manner. Runquist is attracted to the sensuousness of the jumble of shapes, which he translates into areas of increased attention and areas of calmer space. To some extent, the toys function as excuses for abstract mark making and the use of bright colors; they allow the artist to play as well. An indication of this appears in the shadows or doubles of objects occurring in several of these still lifes, which are prints of the wet shapes next to them.
Lemon, titled after the yellow in its upper left corner, is complexly structured by balances, diagonals, and repetitions of shapes and colors. According to Runquist, the toy arrangements and the narratives his son relates while playing keep changing, creating a welcome challenge for the painter to figure out “a way to capture and stretch time, as it were.” The still lifes are thus very personal representations of the artist’s and his son’s unconditional presence. Instead of capturing the particulars of the assembled objects, Runquist muses, “the paintings are like poems, integrating pictorial moments into something more abstract.”
Lemon, 2012, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″