John McNamara

Stavardis Gallery

John McNamara is, in the time-honored phrase, a painter's painter, and, more than that, a viewer's painter. His works demonstrate a wholehearted engagement with the sensuosity of paint, the expressive potential of line, and the plays of illusionism—in short, an unabashed, old-fashioned affirmation of paint's beauty.

McNamara emerged on the Boston scene a decade ago with large, ambitious abstract landscapes featuring boulderlike forms composed of striated layers of paint. Celebratory and sensual, these won immediate, lavish local praise, putting McNamara in the forefront of a newly energized Boston art community. Since then, his fortunes (and efforts) have waxed and waned, affected by the tougher New York audience and the heyday of neo-Expressionism.

In recent years McNamara has recharged his work by returning to his original concern with landscape and abstraction and with the nature of paint. His recent show of eight paintings, all 1987, demonstrates that he has reasserted and significantly expanded these pursuits. Devoid of post-Modernist cynicism, these works descend from the spatial challenges and sensual surfaces of the modern European painterly tradition established and developed by Cézanne, Matisse, and Derain. McNamara's new work retains these connections, along with echoes of his earlier work's boulder and tunnel shapes and linear structuring. However, these forms now reside in a far more ethereal space. Like Rembrandt's, they are illuminated within an enveloping darkness, and they are often highlighted with gold paint in a fashion that recalls Vermeer's enlivening accents of bright white.

Two large-scale paintings dominate the show. In the predominantly green-toned Echo of Patina, McNamara continues to explore painting's formal properties. Over a lush, atmospheric ground of translucent green, gray, blue, and purple washes, delicate linear swirls of yellowish gold suggest rocks or tunnels. Floating in this nebulous space are irregular isolated vertical lozenges, jewellike affirmations of harmonious color relationships. Although they seem to float, these are solid forms that contrast with the vaporous wash and thus bring out the painting's multiple weights, textures, and (by implication) states of being.

The other large painting moves beyond esthetic elegance. Done around the same time as Echo of Patina, this untitled painting is a breakthrough work that risks deformity and attains transcendence. Across the horizontal canvas a dense, highly varnished, purplish-black surface is radiantly imploded by hairy, reddish tracings. Bands of horizontal gold paint suggest a horizon line, balanced on either side by similar vertical lozenges. As before, McNamara structures the work through its seductive hues and the balance between abstraction and imagery. But its seeming impenetrability, which arises from McNamara's tendency toward gorgeous but impregnable imagery, is pierced by “unsightly,” disquieting strokes. This opening up of the canvas suggests a newfound ability to imbue the obscure, blemished, and misshapen with illumination and grace.

Nancy Stapen