New York

Neil Welliver

Fischbach Gallery

Since Neil Welliver holds a rather prominent position among landscape or realist painters today, it seems justified to point out a few reasons why someone may not like his work. Aside from the fact that it’s always pleasant to have a well-executed landscape around the house, what is it that attracts so many to his canvases?

Perhaps it’s the very things that I find disturbing in his imagery, his application and presentation. Basically the dislike comes down to an impatience with the paint-by-number approach of putting together an image from blobs of paint. Recognizing the historical precedents and references and justifications, it seems that this technique, produced when countless dabs of paint are joined together in one canvas, can produce an overall effect of one final joining together. Welliver’s paintings fail to do that trick. Instead, they remain compilations of thousands of paint blobs. The images are obviously there and distinguishable (Welliver doesn’t disguise the landscape; he does illuminate it) but the total separation of elements is very disturbing to my eyes.

Late Light, for instance, a large square canvas of a forest interior, highlights the light on the forest floor with a light color that contrasts with the darkness around it, but it somehow reads less like light than like paint. The separation of light and dark areas and highlights in Lower Ducktrap is just as unsettling. There’s no sneaking up on things, no demarcation or areas where light begins to turn into shadow or a contour is given an excuse for being there. It’s all laid out as a fait accompli of nature and there to be accepted. The highlights sit on the top of the water, rather than blending in; it’s very disturbing. The painting action is so obvious.

In Shadow, an abrupt switch between the darkness of an impending cloud shadow and the bright light of the trees below it works extremely well. The harsh line between light and dark fit right in with Welliver’s method. But where the shapes and shadows don’t meld into a reasonable setting, as in Big Flowage, the flat, bright elements chop the canvas into too many pieces. Against a Kodachrome blue sky, the clouds of Flowage float by in the sky above and are reflected in the water below, but the water and cloud reflection is harsh beyond belief and very nearly separates from the canvas itself, much as the brook flowing along over the rocks in Prospect Brook seems made not of liquid but of brittle slivers.

Welliver stylizes his shadows and contours enough to break away from a classical realism, but stops just short of the abstract. The effect strikes a false note; there’s an overall effect of dissection, a breaking down of light and dark into components that should be used as information but instead comes out as the sole reason for the painting. Stepping back from a large canvas after examining particles of paint used for contour and shadow, one expects the details to combine into a comprehensible whole. But they don’t; the canvas remains a collection of well-placed paint fragments.

Deborah Perlberg