I like paintings that burst. In fact, I love all kinds of paintings, including quietly meditative works. But paintings that jump out — the ones that jump out at you visually — are at the top of my list. Nathaniel Meyer’s paintings currently on display in ‘Arcadian Shores: Golden Age Restoration’ at Elizabeth Moss Galleries are that kind of vivid.
Meyer’s best works in oil on canvas are bold and entertaining coastal landscapes. Looks like NC Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish had a baby who grew up to be a painter with, well, let’s just say a psychedelic side. In other words, they are bright, clearly delineated landscapes that favor intense colors and imaginative detail. They capture moments of eerie oddity, scenes so engaging they come back to us in our dreams, paroxysms of vision.
Meyer’s ‘Newell’s Ledge’, for example, is a 37 x 48 inch oil painting that unabashedly lines up with NC Wyeth’s well-known and locally beloved ‘Black Spruce Ledge’. Meyer’s work does not include a fisherman, and instead of Wyeth’s salmon-patterned altocumulus clouds, we see golden sunbeams blazing like a laser behind the island with clouds from every side and a small cloud pitched near the middle almost like a cotton-candy cannonball stealing the site from the sun.
“Newell’s Ledge” is unmistakably recognizable as a painting scene we’ve seen before. But with a longer look, we see it as Meyer’s painting of an actual location. It’s a place in our pictorial memories of coastal Maine (we all know it, but most of us know it from pictures), and while Meyer tips his art history hat towards his giant cloud pictorial ancestors, he makes this scene his own. It’s explosively alive and vivid with a quietly generous helping of magical realism.
Consider the title of the show for a moment. As hosts of Acadia National Park, we are closer to Arcadia than most of us realize. ‘Arcadia’ literally refers to a region of Greece and the term, since the classical era, has meant ‘idyllic place’. This is how the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano called the entire East Coast on his 16th century map. (Yes, there’s an “r” in the Greek version, but anyone who’s spoken with a real Mainer knows that we’ve always had problems with the letter “r”; we add them to words that end in “a ” hard and delete them from words like “glacier”.) Arcadia, which in French is “Acadie” – hence the absence of the “r” – was a colony of New France that encompassed a vast region including Maine and the Canadian Maritimes from 1605 for more than a century. With the ping-pong pugilism of England and France, as with us, it was, politically at least, far from idyllic.
Meyer’s Arcadia, however, directly references the classical notion of landscape as sanctuary, a model of paradise for painters such as the classical/baroque landscape genius Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) whose “Et in Arcadia Ego” set the standard for landscape paintings. as a moral refuge. In the Louvre masterpiece, four shepherds discuss (and debate?) the meaning of the phrase engraved in the stone of an ancient tomb. The phrase is Latin for “And I too am in Arcadia”, which in this case we assume means “heaven”. The conversation of the shepherds is moral philosophy in action.
The “Golden Age” generally refers to the era marked by the advent of photomechanical reproductions that could be printed in magazines, books, and newspapers beginning around 1880. Instead of relying on painstakingly redrawn images, artists and publishers could directly use paints for publication. Thus artists like Howard Pyle, Aubrey Beardsley, Jules Guerin and Jessie Willcox Smith have become household names. Pyle was NC Wyeth’s mentor, and from there we can see narrative painting re-emerge as a major form of image-making.
Meyer’s style is immediate and bold, very much in the direct painting pioneered by Winslow Homer and the Impressionists, American and Continental. Although contemporary and a bit brash, it all fits. To be sure, setting a standard among the likes of Wyeth, Parrish or, say, Violet Oakley is like challenging Tiger Woods to a round of golf. But Meyer sets the stage for an entertaining engagement; and it is a laudable goal, and one that Meyer fully achieves. After all, he does not seek to surpass his ancestors of the golden age, but to transmit their language and their pictorial values. And their values were based on connecting with the public rather than surpassing the accomplishments of others.
Meyer’s “Taraxacum” uses, for example, the Latin name for “dandelion”, but the scene is pure coastal Maine as depicted by Golden Age illustration painters. Among a few evergreen witnesses watching from the seaside cliffs, an NC Wyeth-like cloud bank rolls into a coastal nook: swirling clouds of caramel and puffy salmon approach a few dandelions almost vivid psychedelics on the near shore. Meyer’s trees, like most of his dark shapes, are unmistakably dark and opaque shapes that only serve to throw his peachy-white clouds into high relief.
In “Rosa Rugosa”, Meyer’s purple, orange, yellow and cream clouds hover above a simple landscape of pine trees, flowers in the foreground and an island overrun by mist that immediately fades within visual distance.
“Raven’s Nest II” is somewhat reminiscent of the exhibition of past paintings from Meyer to Moss (including a version of this specific scene). It represents a special, though not so secret, location near Schoodic, just north of Acadia. Between Meyer’s hanging pink clouds and similarly scented primroses, we wonder if the eerie oddity in the image has to do with Meyer’s subjective experience or if we’re so used to painters cleaning up such landscapes. that we find it hard to swallow the strangeness of the real imbalance. Ultimately, however, the psychedelic sense urges us to leave the stylized sensations to the artist and his ostensibly golden sensibilities.
The punctuation for “Arcadian Shores” is “Little Sugarpear Island,” a playful, dreamy little mound of an island off the coast of Maine. And it’s dreamlike. A Cheshire Cat moonshine smiled on the scene. Stars twinkle in the upper left sky. Wispy clouds (fog, sleep, or something else smoke?) float from the left, the narrative shimmering beginning of the piece. One spruce pine sways, pleasantly drunk, against the pouting cumulus a la Parrish, while the others cling to dance among them like where the wild things are: cotton candy confections sometimes white birch and slender or deciduous of maple.
Meyer’s honest engagement is refreshing. His open and clear references are positive, respectful and grateful. He clearly loves painting, admires his predecessors and loves his audience. And in addition, he knows how to handle a brush and has a weakness for color. “Arcadian Shores” is a reminder that while painting can (and probably should) be difficult, it’s at its best when it’s engaging and entertaining. A few of the works in ‘Arcadian Shores’ look a bit rushed, but it looks like Meyer has something to say; and if so, a little urgency seems about right.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:
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