Neil Welliver

Fischbach Gallery

In the 18th century, the term “picturesque” referred to a landscape which looked as if it had come straight out of a Claudian painting. The natural landscape, ranked subservient to the painted one, was not seen as a source, merely as an analogy. Later in the century when this term was definitionally inverted to mean a scene worthy of depiction, nature, though viewed as foundational, again carried with it derogatory shadings. “Picturesque” implied a breed of perfection and prettiness which was not “beautiful” in that painting could capture it too easily.

Neil Welliver’s large-scaled landscapes perpetuate an American classical landscape tradition, vacillating between idealizing Maine landscapes and constructing American monuments. The theatrical scale of Welliver’s paintings truly befits a grand vision, but like Mount Rushmore, there is always an element of danger in monumentalizing and immortalizing nature.

Encompassing and transferring such large scenes onto equally large canvases necessitates its breakdown into smaller, more handleable components. Only in actual seeing is it possible to focus on one aspect while absorbing the peripheral surroundings. Even a photograph, no matter how loyal to a vista, will not easily capture the spatial experience. By recording every interaction of color, form and texture, Welliver formulates his paintings, confident that upon completion the sense of entirety will be preserved.

The problems which Welliver encounters painting such massive pageants are similar to those we face when viewing his paintings. In both there is a need for constant alternation between “saccadic” eye movements, jumps from mooring to mooring in search of information, and “pursuit” eye movements, continuous, smooth movements which seek to construct a totality. Because such a large slice of nature presents so many levels of complexity, no matter how schematically idealized Welliver’s paintings are, points of fixation are often not well enough defined to allow for our easy entry and passage.

Visually, the works strike one as paint-by-number compositions on a grand scale with strokes of color applied with an uncomfortably professional assurance. Welliver at times bypasses the sublime and produces a ledger of conventions by adhering to the Emersonian aphorism “fact in nature as the noun of the intellect.” And yet, veering so far to the extreme of bloodlessness, he masterfully avoids painting a souvenir ashtray of Maine.

Though Neil Welliver’s approach to painting is essentially intellectual, his works do affect us sensually. Although these paintings could not possibly have been painted plein air, they still make us, to quote Degas on Monet, “turn up our coat collar”; paint truly becomes air and daylight. The weaknesses inherent in superlative technique and sheer enormity are redeemed by the challenges which they present. Neil Welliver manages to hold nature on a slack leash, harnessing it as a source of visual material for his work and yet utilizing it as the point of his departure.

Judith Cardozo