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Painterly Realism

From: Blueberry Ridge (Fall) 1995

Painterly Realism
James Linehan's landscapes are meditative and always on the edge

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Landscapes in the art of James Linehan have taken many forms through the years.

In his signature "crossover works," in which realism juxtaposes the abstract, glimpses of landscapes are elements of the whole. The complexity and contradiction in Linehan's past works have been likened to James Joyce's metaphoric journeys through the landscape of the mind. With his canvas as something of a travel log, Linehan has recorded the evolution of his art and the landscape of his life, including milestones like marriage and fatherhood.

In his most recent paintings, landscapes dominate his work like never before. Considerably more conservative by Linehan standards than his earlier works, they emulate the serenity and mystery of Maine's natural landscape.

But while the images may have shifted toward realism, abstraction remains in Linehan's artistic vocabulary – the rhythm of his brush strokes, the loose hatching of his images, the selection of his subjects. Because his is a natural and personal response to the landscape and a reflection of his "love of place," stereotypic tourist images are not the objective. Instead, Linehan paints "fairly simple images" that have a meditative quality.

"My paintings are about contemplating nature in a Zen sort of way," says Linehan, chair of the Department of Art at the University of Maine and a professor on the studio art faculty. "I don't like melodrama. I like landscapes where ‘nothing happens' – no dramatic sunset or huge clouds rolling through, or deep, spiritual, breathtaking panoramas on the horizon. Instead, I paint an island road on a calm, clear day; birch trees at the edge of a field; spruce, pine, rocks and the edge of the water, with only a bit of road – a hint of human activity – showing."

Response to Linehan's landscapes has been anything but passive. Since his first solo show of landscapes in 1994, Linehan has exhibited extensively in New York City and throughout the country, in the Maine Governor's Mansion and in the U.S. Capitol. Commissioned percent for art pieces by Linehan are found in schools and other public buildings in six Maine counties, and on the University of Maine campus. He has done more than 21 public commissions, 26 solo exhibitions, and 75 group exhibitions in 25 years. Two of his paintings made the covers of L.L. Bean catalogs in 1995-96.

Audiences have seen his works on exhibit in Japan, Finland and Jordan.

Whether they are framed pieces 6-by-8 inches or murals 9-by-25 feet, his landscapes speak to familiar, uncontrived vistas, then quickly move beyond to the ever-present, provocative and often inexplicable dimensions of nature that humans struggle to understand.

"When people ask what I do, the first thing I say is that I'm a painter," Linehan says. "I think in paint and look at the world as a painter. Over the years, I've explored a number of different styles with my work and subjects. I like combining abstraction with representation, the collision of abstract and realist imagery, and the way meaning arises from the space between these battling modes of expression."

Linehan's landscapes are in the genre of what he calls "painterly realism – with an emphasis on painterly."

For instance, in New York gallery exhibits of conservative, contemporary American realism, Linehan is the "wild card – a loose, gestural painter."

"I'm really at the edge of what some conservative, realist galleries would show, yet in most contemporary art contexts, these works are quite conservative," he says. "When painting, I'm a slave to the actual scene. I don't like to move a tree or a hill. I want my paintings to be true. If you change what nature gives you, you can get it wrong or have a hybrid that doesn't make sense."

Linehan joined the UMaine faculty in 1983, and spent the first decade "resisting the tag of being a landscape painter." But all that changed after years of visits to a family farm in Down East Maine. The rural area, complete with blueberry barrens, old apple orchards and acres of woodlands, gave Linehan a reason to confront Maine's beauty in his painting.

It's a view of the state's natural beauty that tourists don't often see, yet it is the landscape to which Linehan responded most.
His first large series of works inspired by the Washington County landscape was a suite of 30 paintings, some 54-by-72 inches. These and some of his other landscapes take their titles from the Maine dialect, with phrases like Up Back and Over to Camp.

"While I grew up in different parts of the country, I've explored Maine in paint now for 20 years," says Linehan. "This is where I'm truly at home."

In recent years, his explorations have taken him to other quiet, out-of-the-way places like the beach at Roque Bluffs, lupine fields on Little Cranberry Island, and the blueberry barrens and Walker Pond in Brooksville. The result: paintings that are "meditations of a sort."

"To me, painting is about finding stability, stasis and a kind of maturity; painting is how I find my place in the world," Linehan says. "I try to achieve balance – an absolute stillness and tranquility."

by Margaret Nagle
July-August, 2003

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