James Linehan's landscapes
are meditative and always on the edge
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
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
"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
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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.