New York

Michael Mooney

The Proposition

There are ten landscape paintings in this exhibition, each a small oil on panel in a large white frame. These rural scenes are rendered in deep greens and yellows, with paint so thick that it is raised in wide grooves by the brushstrokes. A number of different locales are represented: the almost miniature Tahiti (all works, 1989) shows what looks like a pineapple tree in an expanse of yellow and green grass. Warrensburg and Joe Indian pond road both look to be from upstate New York (the artist has spent a good deal of time in Albany) and have the tone of Americana. Fields near the flats, perhaps because of the use of golden-brown tones, looks like it might be Arles; an untitled piece shows a path to the horizon that passes through a few carefully planted trees.

Seeing these paintings against the white walls of the gallery, and with the frames being as large as they are, one gets the sense of looking through a number of small openings, portholes, or airplane windows, onto one or another country setting. Mooney chooses his compositions with great skill and consideration, and the window effect is achieved mostly through cropping the image; the trees are rarely shown above the level of the first crotch in their branches and in some cases are interrupted by the edge of the frame; the horizons are almost universally set towards the top of the panel and some distance away. Many of the perspectives seem to be from a raised altitude, and the absence of any sign of cultivation or dwelling makes one feel as if one is meant to be floating like a kite or a disembodied spirit—the wind blows quite forefully through most of these scenes, bending the trees and stirring the grass. Moreover, Mooney seems to be fascinated by the effects of late afternoon light—not dusk, but that half-hour when the sun, still bright, rakes across the landscape, casting deep, elongated shadows on the ground, evening out the colors, and outlining and sharpening the clearest and simplest forms of the setting, until they look almost like painted cartoons. At least one piece, called Two trees, depicts an early scene rather than a late one, but, in relying on the first full light of the morning, it shows the same kind of illumination.

Just as the titles of the paintings take us nowhere but the scenes themselves (the exception is Myth of Sisyphus, which simply shows a boulder in a green field), one gets the sense that, on the whole, there is nothing supporting the work but the images. Mooney has pared down the forms of his objects to the point where they seem almost naive—apparently because he is anxious to exclude considerations external to his ideas of beauty (a brief artist’s statement accompanies the show)—and the disproportionate size of the frames makes each scene seem isolated, as if insulated from any outside noise. The artist seems to paint without distancing himself from the work, entirely without irony or second thought.

James Lewis