Art review: Meg Brown Payson peers through the surface of Maine waters

For centuries, artists have used series as a way to explore the phenomena of nature, light, time, space and color. From 1890 to 1891, Claude Monet related his perceptions of light on 25 canvases representing haystacks in the fields surrounding Giverny. Josef Albers began painting hundreds of variations on the theme of a square in 1949 to study the effects of chromatic interactions between three or four color gradations. And On Kawara’s more than 3,000 “Today” paintings spanning several decades are conceptual meditations on time and space.

Meg Brown Payson does something similar in “Asleep On the Dock” (through April 29) in the Press Hotel’s ground floor gallery. Payson has long been known for her infinitely layered abstractions of biomorphic forms. I have always looked at these works as poetic contemplations on the origins of life.

Many struck me as something you would see under a microscope on a slide moistened with a drop of marsh water, where living organisms normally invisible to the naked eye wriggle and swim. In evolutionary terms, at some point they could have been the primordial building blocks of mammals that first swam, then walked, on land.

Depending on their palette, Payson’s paintings can also remind us of planetary phenomena like galaxy births and other cosmic fulminations. In this sense, the six large panel paintings on display are not anomalous; they still convey the concept of creation, of life emerging and reproducing.

But the title of the exhibition, as well as the names of the individual works (all produced during a residency at the Ellis Beauregard Foundation in Rockland), indicate that she has narrowed her vision considerably to evoke a very specific sense of place. “Caring is a powerful type of love,” reads one wall plaque. “I live where I grew up; these paintings recall moments floating in and on the waters of Maine, looking through the seaweed and through the clouds. Like space, like memory, the paintings overlap and change over time.

In “Hot Moon” – a composition of indigo, cerulean blue and cobalt blue – we feel underwater, looking through forms of aquatic plants towards the title’s pale white moonlight. Through its layering of acrylic paints and organic shapes, as well as the size of the panels, Payson evokes a palpable sense of submersion in the salt water of Casco Bay.

There is also a similar effect in “Midnight Glimmer”, although the palette and density of the shapes here create a murkier canvas through which we see this light. It’s greener and grayer, which indicates, to me at least, a lake rather than the ocean (like “Hot Moon”).

Which creates the sense of fluidity and underwater perspective, I realized that the more I looked at these two paintings, they are wavy outlines – some solid, some done with tiny dots – that convey the wavy surface water slightly disturbed by breezes and/or moving currents below. David Hockney depicted them in his famous swimming pool paintings as networks of hair lines in white or pale blue. Payson uses a different technique but evokes the same sense of perpetually moving water.

Meg Brown Payson, “To the Shore”

The most successful works here, in my opinion, are “To the Shore” and “Rockweed”, which face each other in the gallery. “To the Shore” is a three-panel piece in resplendent green. Payson’s forms here are larger and more opaque than in other paintings, some of them appearing veined like leaves. And that’s exactly the memory it evokes. We are not underwater here; we look down at a blanket of leaves floating on the surface of a lake that have gathered along the shore. The presence of yellows gives this surface a sunny appearance on a hot summer day.

“Rockweed” sounds seductively more mysterious. This is because we cannot quite identify what we are looking at. Globulous translucent blue shapes seem suspended above shades of coral and salmon. There is so much light emanating from below – as if from deep heat far below the surface – that it seems otherworldly.

Payson also took paint-soaked foam beads normally used as a backing for flower arrangements and sprinkled them haphazardly over the panel. The pearls are no longer present (not sure if they were removed or dissolved into the surface). Only their tiny bubble-like presence remains. This same method is deployed in other paintings. But the sheer density of these tiny round shapes here gives the painting a kind of visual effervescence, as if this enigmatic light were heating the liquid depicted, sending masses of tiny bubbles to the surface.

Meg Brown Payson, “Fucus”

Rockweed, of course, is a kind of seaweed common along the New England coast. It is characterized by long, flat fronds attached to air bladders that keep the plants afloat, allowing the kelp to perform photosynthesis. Yet the paint bears no trace of the plant, which is usually green or brown. Nor does any form indicate it.

Only its sense of depth and blue give ‘Rockweed’ a watery feel. But it could just as well be intimating the hot gases of the universe, thus suggesting a more general act of spontaneous creation. There is richness in its lack of discernible association. Which raises an interesting point: Payson’s technique is itself fluid in the sense that it functions both abstractly and representatively on different levels.

The ability to link abstract shapes to something we can identify, however vaguely, works for paintings like “To the Shore” or “Hot Moon.” Conversely, the impossibility of doing so with a work like “Rockweed” – despite a title that could lead you to a definite conclusion – not only works too, but succeeds even more powerfully because it pulls you into something. more intangible and, therefore, almost mystical.

Meg Brown Payson, “Sun in My Eyes”

It’s also worth noting that a painting like “Sun in My Eyes”, although painted in bright colors, looks more decorative, almost like a fabric or wallpaper pattern. In this case, neither abstraction nor an ambiguous idea of ​​representation elevates the work to the same level as “To the Shore” or “Rockweed”.

You can contemplate this and other matters at any time since the gallery is in a hotel that is open 24/7. So, if you happen to be an insomniac, Payson’s paintings could be a particularly fruitful way to pass your nightly waking hours.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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