By Don Wilkinson
Westport, MA- In anticipation of the July exhibition of the recent work of Severin (Sig) Haines at the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, I have made several visits to his studio in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and although I have long been familiar with Haines and his paintings, I was delighted to see him pushing personal aesthetic boundaries, albeit within the genre he is best known for: the landscape.
But when is a landscape painter not a landscape painter? When he is a formalist’s formalist. Close examination of the work reveals that, for Haines, the act of painting is not in service to the landscape, but rather, that the landscape is in service to painting itself. There are the comforting hallmarks and reassurances of the traditional landscape; the softening horizon line, brilliant dapples of sunlight, the calligraphy of tree branches and grass blades. However, the work rejects saccharine sentimentality and an awkward nostalgia, and instead embraces the observation of nature as a method to explore color relationships and spatial elements.
Using color as architectonic structure, Haines taps into Cezanne, “the grandfather of us all,” and checkmates Jackson Pollock, by manipulating negative space and “all-over” patterning, using the language of the landscape in place of drips, spatters and splashes. The painter Leland Bell, when visiting Haines’ Yale student art studio, complimented his work, but added a qualifying statement; “ …but you’re not painting with color.” Haines- a superb draftsman- considered that challenge, and while hardly abandoning drawing, embraces the plastic qualities of painting, with the sure recognition of the graphic weight and importance of form, structure, hue, intensity and value.
In “Marsh and Brush at Waquoit II,” the bog grasses and reeds rise and sink as purely compositional elements, affecting an aesthetic push-and-pull that takes a cautious step towards abstraction. The cloud-studded blue sky and azure sliver of water in the background anchor it in the realm of common perceptual reality. However, viewing the image on the computer screen, I deployed the old art school trick of flipping the painting upside-down, and what came into focus was pure visual play…landscape in service of painting. (A note of caution: please do not attempt to flip this painting-or any other one- in the gallery.)
“Sand and Seaweed II,” in which powdery blues intermingle with warm-then-cool shades of beige, piles of deep brown seaweed are stranded on a beach cove. The forms, while rooted in observational study, morph in the imagination into peasant wedding dancers out of Brueghel, or participants in a wild Roman orgy. The lower two-thirds of the painting, disconnected from the “realistic” upper third, are pure pattern making. In this work, Haines utilizes the detritus of the ocean and nature to make shapes that inflate, conflate, cohabitate, and — occasionally — implode.
One particularly striking painting is “Dune in Winter II.” A predominantly grey work, it is streaked with whispery bands and twisting arcs of light yellow and golden browns, referencing the weathered plant life, but without succumbing to the pragmatic fidelity of perceptual reality.
Haines was a long-time painting instructor at the now defunct private Swain School of Design, and later at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. A former student of his once noted, “Sig knows every shade of green.” That is true enough, but in his most recent works, Haines has found vibrant purples, clay reds, and a range of pastels as soft as one might find in a roll of Necco Wafers…all in those bogs, swamps, marshes, woods and beaches. Landscape in the service of painting…indeed.
(“Severin Haines: Recent Landscapes” is on display from July 3 through 28 at the Dedee Shattuck Gallery, 1 Partners’ Lane, Westport, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 636-4177.)