Craig MooneyThe large landscape paintings are a brilliant antidote to Vermont’s November skies and the leafless boughs of stick season. Many of the 21 oil paintings in his solo exhibition at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery are reminiscent of long summer days and the vagaries of light from dawn to dusk that accompany them.
Most are landscapes with no structures or people to interrupt views of distant mountains or distract from rivers meandering across the canvas. Mooney also includes some cityscapes and figurative paintings to mix it up and give the show a little more scope.
In “Green Mountain State of Mind,” the Stowe artist sends us back to our own states of mind, as well as the places we’ve been in Vermont, even through the back door. We see in his work everything we bring to it, and that’s exactly how Mooney wants it to be. He is not an open-air painter, drawing and painting on location, nor does he work from photographs. The “state of mind” to which the artist refers is that of his own imagination, and that of the spectator.
For all their familiarity, the scenes on Mooney’s canvases do not represent actual locations. Although memory plays a part in their creation, his paintings evoke more of a feeling of being in Vermont, or returning there for that matter, than replicating real places.
“[It’s] the sigh of relief when you’re back in Vermont. It’s like a huge burden is coming off your shoulders,” Mooney said in a phone conversation.
Although Mooney is originally from New York, he spent time in Vermont as a child; when he began his artistic career in earnest, Vermont was his testing ground. Today, Mooney’s paintings are exhibited across the United States and, more recently, in London and Milan. Being able to return to his home in Vermont is reassuring, he said, as well as inspiring.
Born in 1969 in New York, Mooney received his first training from his father, an amateur artist, who taught him how to work with oil paint. Although he had taken academic art classes over the years, according to his artist statement, Mooney considers this early exposure to be the most authentic form of training.
Midtown Manhattan was an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and its cityscapes still reflect this today. Mooney’s paintings are imbued with a sense of confidence that can come from his early exposure to artistic creation and his deep familiarity with his subjects, whether from Vermont, New York or elsewhere.
“Where the Current Takes You,” a 47-by-94-inch diptych, is the centerpiece of the exhibit, hanging at the end of the gallery. The sky bathed in light of the work immediately attracts the attention of visitors as soon as they enter. A wide river meanders through the lower part of the painting, bisected by the two panels of the diptych. This division may seem to disturb the flow of the river, but it has the opposite effect. The pull of the river current is almost palpable, as if the panels exerted a magnetic attraction on each other.
The title of this great piece speaks of mind and spirit travel rather than the purely physical genre. In art and literature, water is often used as a metaphor for change or a spiritual journey. In this case, the phrase can also refer to how the river guides the viewer through the painting.
Mooney often uses a square format. In this exhibit, 16 of the 21 paintings have this form, ranging from the 15-square-inch “Lifting Clouds” to the 48-square-inch “Violet Ridge.” The aforementioned diptych consists of two 47-inch square panels.
The artist’s rural landscapes showcase the sky, using up to two-thirds of the canvas to depict it. His palette has a soothing effect, largely using green, blue and white. A closer look, however, reveals a huge range of other earthy colors across the paints. Brilliant strokes of white – or substitutes for white, such as light purple – are reminiscent of John Singer Sargent, whose white accentuated the subjects of his portraits.
Mooney’s inclusion of cityscapes among his bucolic scenes may come as a surprise, but the works are compatible in this exhibition. The concrete corridors of New York come to life on the canvas as surely as if he were describing the Appalachian Gap in Buels Gore.
Mooney’s paintings subtly straddle representation and abstraction; he is not quite on one side or the other. Some scenes clearly represent a place. In “Stone Wall”, for example, the titular wall is perpendicular to a line of trees along a ridge. Beyond the wall, a rock-filled meadow fills the canvas. In “Distant Winter Barn”, a classic red barn anchors the familiar rural image.
Other paintings are more amorphous. In the resplendent “Violet Ridge,” for example, a hazy horizon of blues, whites, and purples erupts in a pyrotechnics of color, cloud, and mist. In this and similar works, Mooney becomes brooding and abstraction trumps representation.
While his summer and autumn paintings evoke these seasons, his winter scenes remain in the mind long after we have seen them. “Winter Cascade,” a 30 square inch tour de force of snow-filled wood, draws the eye through a path toward the light beyond the trees. Viewers can pause as they work through the image, trying to gain a solid grounding and orientation in this snowy world. It’s an abstraction of an experience familiar to most Vermonters: a winter walk in the woods.
“Vermont was always this incubator, this safe place where I could gather my ideas,” Mooney said. “For this show, [Vermont is] not always the subject. When I did that show, it was more about everything Vermont gave me.”
Visitors to the Supreme Court Gallery may feel that his exhibition is about what Mooney gave us.