Neill Fearnley

Nielson Gallery

Whether in the recent paintings or in his earlier, austere assemblages of found objects, Neill Fearnley has always been single-minded in his determination to make work that both evokes a place and is of that place. Yet, unlike Richard Long, who solves the dilemma by simply bringing something from nature into an art context and arranging it, Fearnley has never settled on a single method. Since he first began exhibiting in the early ’80s, he has continued to change the way he combines sculptural presence and painting, object and surface. Among young artists, Fearnley’s healthy dissatisfaction with his own accomplishments is all too rare.

The exhibition consisted of small oil paintings on canvas or Masonite that Fearnley did in 1986 and ’87 after moving from Boston, where he had a studio overlooking the harbor, to Rowley, a small town on the harsh northern coast of Massachusetts. In a few of these works, the artist attached pieces of found boards to the edges, but for the most part he achieved the effects he wanted through his manipulation of paint. The vocabulary can be described as a reinvention of, among other things, Constructivism and the Synthetic Cubism of the emblematic images that Marsden Hartley painted in Provincetown in 1916.

Fearnley has assimilated Constructivist composition into his approach to such a degree that it loses its self-referentiality and, more importantly, its historical status and post-Modernist irony. The light, colors, and shapes of the recent paintings refer to the bleak, decaying conditions of American harbors. The muted grays and reds, for example, evoke industrial primers and undercoatings—a subtle reminder of nature’s indifference. The space is simultaneously shallow and compressed, and suggestive of murky polluted water and smoggy sky. In several paintings, a layered space of solid planes of color is placed next to or within a translucent space of hushed light. The tilt of buoy- and crane-like shapes within the rectangle, the overlapping planes, and the crudely drawn linear passages make everything in the painting seem precarious, rather than, as in Constructivist composition, a denial of gravity.

In recent years, much attention has been paid to contemporary American art that is supposedly about our spiritual malaise or the end of American dominance in global political and economic affairs. Few of these artists refer to the actual world in their works, preferring instead the world of received ideas. Fearnley, in bringing together Constructivism, early American Modernism, and a keen awareness of the decrepit state of American harbors and our seaside industry, undermines currently accepted definitions of political art. Moreover, he shows the real effects of decay and entropy on abstraction, rather than producing post-Modernist ivory tower ironies.

Reviewed by John Yau.