Bringing Maritime Art into the Modern Art World

Alexis Martino. Yearning, Digital Photograph, 21" x 31", 1/5
Alexis Martino. Yearning, Digital Photograph, 21″ x 31″, 1/5

By Tim Sommer

We live on an Island. Collared by long, lurid camel-colored reeds, dreamy green lawns, and beaches full of sea salt shimmer and childhood shouts, this Long Island may be cut with highways and spotted with Carvels, but it is still very much an island, and the water is never very far away. Manhattan, that sepia and silver sliver of sky-reaching spikes which lies 100 miles to our west and holds so many of our caution-less dreams of commerce and assignation, is an island, too. In any direction we turn, every point of the compass, our social, historical, and cultural geography is shaped by our great ports, hustling harbors, briny beaches, and the long flat sea.

Dalton Portella, White Water, archival pigment print mounted on dibond, 40 x 40, edition 10.
Dalton Portella, White Water, archival pigment print mounted on dibond, 40 x 40, edition 10.

Likewise, for centuries painters living and working in New York have let the magnificent poetry of the sea inspire and guide them, from the elegiac Edens portrayed by the artists of the Hudson River School to the realism of Alexander Brook. The chaos and brilliantine light of the sea informs even the dissolute works of Krassner and Pollock.

Yet when we think of Maritime Art, we probably visualize third-rate paintings found in lesser motel rooms, done with about as much artistry as a fresco of the Parthenon hanging over the counter of a Greek diner.

Kelly Neidig, Five Boats, flashe on canvas, 30" x 30"
Kelly Neidig, Five Boats, flashe on canvas, 30″ x 30″

A new exhibition at the Sara Nightingale Gallery in Water Mill wants to change your sleepy way of thinking about nautical and maritime-themed art. Curator Sara Nightingale challenged a group of local, national, and international artists with this thought: “Picture a painting of a ship hanging in the American Hotel and then take that to next level. What would artists of today create as ‘maritime art’?”

Her challenge was a great success. The work featured in the show is provocative, evocative, confrontational, and remarkably diverse, from the mixed media color-swiped work of Robin Trewes to Amy Guidry’s dry but dark surrealism, from the wildly creative and meticulous works of Erica Lynn Huberty to the hyperrealism of Jeremy Wagner.

Darius Yektai, T'Embrace Noir, oil, watercolor and pen on paper, 11" x 8"
Darius Yektai, T’Embrace Noir, oil, watercolor and pen on paper, 11″ x 8″

As curator, Ms. Nightingale’s goal is to encourage artists to express, in a whisper, a scream, a question or even a joke, the great flood of associations and emotions that spill out from the idea of sea, sand, boardwalk and beach.

“(This) exhibition asks what happens when a crew of self-styled nautical activists (aka artists) pirate the genre of traditional maritime art,” Ms. Nightingale states. And this anything-goes (and anything goes well) quality is especially evident in the magical and simple impressionist swaths of the work of Charlotte Evans, Darius Yektai and Kelly Neidig; sinister, dark, and hopeful, all at once, these particular paintings look like a child’s dream re-imagined at the end of life.

“I do strive to create a feeling of nostalgia in my work,” notes Ms. Neidig. “I like using colors from my own childhood in paintings. Growing up we had this little light blue row boat we would take out fishing, so that was my model for the painting.”

The work in “Reinventing the Helm” shows how the sea can inspire impressions of memory, mortality, reality, and pure imagination. This is the ocean of Turner, a portal to the unconscious; this is the sea of Whitman; these paintings even reflect the dank, urban shores described by Alan Ginsberg.

Many of these artists, including Dalton Portella, are inspired by direct contact with the sea. “The work I’m including in the show is a piece from my “Storm Series/A Perfect Storm,” where I combine different storms to create visually compelling imagery demonstrating the power of nature with a medium that falls between photography and painting,” Mr. Portella says. “It’s a modern approach to maritime art. I’ve also given Sara two watercolors, a shark and a whale. The whale image was from a shark cage dive I went on for reference for a series of shark paintings I’ve done that strips the environment and isolates the shark’s beauty.”

This ain’t your daddy’s pictures of schooners. The show may be most effective when it steps away from the purely representational, and speaks to our memories of water, or the spirits, songs, and suspicions we feel when considering the sea. Full of mystery, foreshortened perspective, and the ocean’s ever-present potential for both isolation and elation, the sea as seen in “Reinventing the Helm” is fully three-dimensional, and a reflection of our deepest hopes and fears, whether land-bound or wrapped by water.

“So we get paper, which is flat, which we fold, creating layers…those layers force the drawing/painting, which normally is flat 2D, into the realm of sculpture,” says Darius Yektai. “Three dimensional paint is used as a material to create illusion, as in the island theme, but it is also used as a physical material like glue which sticks the drawing of the figure to the island theme.”

Taking a fresh look at how the sea impacts art is an invigorating trend: Next spring, the Parrish Art Museum will stage “Radical Seafaring,” a show that explores how visual and performance artists have used the maritime environments to inspire their work and their thinking about the future of art and the way we live.

Ms. Nightingale wants to encourage artists to expand on the yarns implied by typically mundane maritime art, and to make all the stories of the sea — interior, observational, emotional, and literal — come alive in many new dimensions.

And the next chapter in that story is on glorious display in Watermill.

Reinventing the Helm, Self-Styled Nautical Activists Pirate the Cannon of Maritime Art, runs from June 6h to August 3rd, 2015, Sara Nightingale Gallery, 688 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, (793-2256,  The opening event is on Saturday, June 6 from 6 to 8 pm.