Essay By Marcelle Polednik
In an age when California landscape painting is less an aesthetic category than a geographical designation, Barry Masteller contemplates the history of this genre and the distinctiveness of the scenery that inspired it. At first glance, Masteller's paintings evade specificities of time and place. Depicting a somewhere that is nowhere in particular, a golden, eternal hour, they are at once transcendent and elusive. This timeless quality, however, is neither universal nor indefinite. Rather, it has its roots in Masteller's sustained engagement with the particularity of his surrounding landscape and the history of its representation.
Since the 19th century, artists have flocked to California compelled by the beauty of its natural terrain and the unique light that floods the soil. The exceptional setting inspired two diverging sensibilities, each one aimed at capturing the rare qualities of the environs. Artists such as William Keith and Joseph Breuer strove to painstakingly and faithfully record the luminous views they observed. Their contemporaries, Gottardo Piazzoni and Xavier Martinez, on the other hand, focused on light as a mercurial agent of transformation and created contemplative, abstracted compositions.
While distinctly contemporary, Masteller's canvases betray the influence of those early pioneers who recognized California's singular fusion of land and light as fruitful ground for a more meditative approach. Piazzoni continually emphasized his concern “not with the external aspect of the landscape, but with its inward life.” The haunting glow that envelops Masteller's landscapes also hints at the mystery lurking beneath the natural world. For Barry Masteller as well as for his historical predecessors, the landscape serves as a conduit to unknown worlds and hidden dimensions.
Tall and wiry, round and sensual, or angular, trees are the protagonists of Masteller's paintings. In The Woods series, rows of trees silhouetted against the burning sky transform the landscape into a contemplative interplay of light and form. In other series, such as Clouds over Sea, the sky itself takes center stage. The linear, horizontal bands of distant sea and clouds break over the middle ground, revealing billowing, recognizable cloud formations. Abstract color fields give way to the physical world. Rather than focusing on land, these landscapes explore what can be seen from the earthbound perspective. Though firmly grounded, the paintings soar to new heights.
Masteller's works remind that paintings not only represent but also exist as physical landscapes. They reflect a keen understanding of paintings as three-dimensional terrains, formed by sedimented layers of pigment, binder and varnish, and built up, like geological formations, over the course of time. Rather than a weighty, physical presence, however, the works exude a lightness more befitting of a mirage. The ethereal brushstrokes that hover on the surface of these canvases enhance the insubstantial quality of the apparitions. The painstaking method with which Masteller applies the paint to canvas, the delicacy of the forms and the subtlety of the deep, sultry hues invokes the jewel-like tonalist surfaces that haunt his compositions.
Barry Masteller's paintings offer a provocative challenge to the notion that the past brilliance of place California landscape painting has dimmed in recent decades. Light burns intensily, albeit wistfully, over the expanse of his canvases.
Marcelle Polednik PhD.
Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Monterey Museum of Art. Currently Director of the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Enigmatic Urbanscapes: Barry Masteller's Boulevards
by Donald Kuspit
Is there a precedent for Barry Masteller's beautiful, haunting
boulevards? We see the same moody elegance in Gustave Caillebotte's Paris,
the Place de l'Europe on a Rainy Day, 1877--the same brooding isolation, the
same grandly empty spaces, for all the figures that inhabit them.
Masteller's cities are 21st century New York and San Francisco, and his
lights and darks are more cunningly balanced than Caillebotte's--the dark
clothing of his 19th century figures hardly makes a dent in the hazy
luminosity, while the strong radiation from Masteller's luminous windows
locks horns with the darkness (their interaction conveys the tension of the
city, hidden by its deceptively bland geometry)--but they have the same
strange spaciousness: a peculiar mix of seemingly infinitely extending
straight streets and the claustophobic intersections--deceptively broad,
open spaces--where they converge.
Caillebotte's place and Masteller's boulevards are equally grand, but
the boulevards are much more complex--not to say dramatic and
disturbing--than the place. The Parisian buildings and umbrellas are
curved, fluid structures, with an ornamental flair, the American buildings
are bleakly rational--facilely functional rectangles, with the wrap-around
Bauhaus-style windows that confirm their basicness. Whatever curves
appear, as in the sidewalk of Boulevard 53 and the pipes of Boulevard 54,
both 2005, or ornamental patterns, as in Boulevard 46 and Boulevard 47,
both 2005, seem incidental to the matter of fact look of the scene.
Masteller's light softens hard American cities, more the products of
mechanical engineering than imagination, while Caillebotte's light brings
out the softness of the Parisian surfaces, giving them an imaginative
But in the end Masteller's New York City and San Francisco are much more
uncanny and fantastic than Caillebotte's place CityParis. Caillebotte observes a
scene, but Masteller invents his scenes: his pictures are abstract
constructions that convey the strangeness and alienation of urban life even
as they suggest the larger enigma of representation, hinting at its
problematic, uncertain character. Masteller is a conceptual painter: he
unites fragments of the urban environment--carefully chosen from a
repertoire of photographs--to create a kind of picture puzzle, that is, a
representation that conveys the unreal look of every convincing
representation even as it precisely realizes reality. The empirical is
subsumed in the enigmatic, making for a sense of uncanny truthfulness,
however factually bizarre the picture finally seems. Boulevard 44 and
Boulevard 45, both 2004 convey this doubleness--the sense of the
unfathomableness of reality that emerges from excruciating attention to its
detail. What Masteller finally represents is the uncanniness immanent in
space--space whose uncanniness becomes manifest because Masteller has lived
its contradictions. These are evident in the at-oddness of the buildings
and streets, and above all in the clash of light and dark. There is a hint
of latent violence in Masteller's Boulevards, for all their apparent calm.
I think Masteller's urbanscapes are a breakthrough. He has previously
been known for landscapes, influenced by Monet, as he has acknowledged. His
trees have a glowing intensity, his clouds a peculiar impenetrability, for
all their ephemerality. Masteller is clearly a master observer of
atmosphere, light and dark, natural form, and their interplay. The results
are solemnly harmonious pictures. But in the urbanscapes this facade of
harmony is broken, nature is no longer the scene, and there is a sense of
disruptive, even demonic power. Perhaps Masteller has discovered himself
through his experience of the city. The innocence of the landscape has
certainly disappeared. No apologies for haunting beauty; it remains credible,
despite the attacks on it by different modernists, among them Duchamp and
Newman. Beauty conveys the esthetic conviction that is the core of art at its most
Donald Kuspit is an art critic and a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Kuspit is a contributing editor at Artforum, Sculpture,and New Art Examiner magazines, the editor of Art Criticism, and the editor of a series on American Art and Art Criticism for Cambridge University Press.
Ecstatic Reserve in the Work of Barry Masteller
By Dominique Nahas
The shimmering bimorphic forms of Barry Masteller's landscape paintings predominate the artist's work. This is not to say that Masteller has ignored urban scenes or the use of hard-edged geometry. In his Boulevard series, for example, the artist has arranged city streets and apartment buildings, along with the silent movements of silhouetted Hopperesque people seen through store or apartment windows, to create a sense of community and isolation. In another body of work entitled Moon Sequence the artist has gone out of his way to investigate geometric repetition by painting naturalistic scenes as sequential events. We see the differing position of moon and stars over varying dusky silhouettes of trees in Moon Sequence 6 (2004), for example, where an entire image consists of nine panels stacked vertically in sets of three. In Moon Sequence 2 (2003) the artist lays out, predella-like, a horizontal ordering of three small panels. When read from left to right the work creates a narrative of shifting perspectives of land and night sky, as if we were viewing several frames of a film at one time.
Deep vistas of land, water and sky, however, are where Barry Masteller finds his essential voice. His sensory landscapes, all imaginary, are immediately identifiable through his signature use of saturated colors such as auburns, crimsons, browns and ochres. The varying light effects in his work recall the glowing effects in the works of Rembrandt and Turner, the charcoal drawings of Seurat, as well as the early-century California Tonalists.
To achieve his chiaroscuro effects the artist uses a light, delicate touch in which brushes and rags are used to apply pigments and washes as well as to wipe away wet areas of the canvas. Mark making and image-formation and spatial tension, therefore, are created as much by accretion as by reduction. The essential drama that Masteller suggests through his deft use of light is cyclic: perpetual emergence and dissolution from gauzy indeterminance into anticipatory consciousness. His paintings, irradiated with light, are seemingly at a standstill, mysteriously elusive and ecstatic. In the works, the suffused contours of our world as we know it are present but they seem wholly other, as in Earth and Sky 479, (2003). This is not surprising, as the artist's indwelling worlds --- not inhabitable by man - appear to be undergoing deep-rooted, slow change.
Masteller wants us to participate in his intensified perception of objects and the space around them, in the transcendental sublime. His image making compels us to take stock of primary dimensions of sensible phenomena, which open up and then dissipate into the realms of invisibility and the hidden. These immanent fields of possibilities, paradoxically, seem to rise up from within the earth itself, confronting us with an outward sense of harmonious fullness which seems to close in on itself, as in Earth and Sky 470 (2003). In a mid-ground of reflected water there lies a concealed reserve of time and space which pulses secretly throughout the artist's work, often punctuated by the silhouettes of round-shouldered trees, as in Earth and Sky 498 (2004) which serve as surrogates for the human form. This imagistic play is clearly not so much a depiction of the actual physical world held in suspension as much as a reflection of the painter's varying states of mind.
Barry Masteller's ongoing Earth and Sky series asks that we reconsider, in pictorial terms, what we take for granted. When we see a horizon line shimmering in the distance of his bucolic scenes we are not meant to train our eyes and thoughts solely and exclusively to time that is to be but also to be aware of hidden realms within his work. Subliminally, we join a dimension of absence, which is literally grounded in the artist's work, as we consider the terrain that lies below the mounded earth in the foreground, expressed as unseen. Similarly we become slowly aware and marvelously compelled by a sense of the unknowable in the area which lies beyond the horizon in each of his paintings --- implied but undepictable regions of time and space --- made manifest through the suggestion of aura which permeates the earth.
Wonderment regarding the hidden face of the order of things seems to preoccupy Barry Masteller. He captures that feeling in his paintings. In his notes he writes: “ With the passing of the years I feel a greater connection to the earth, especially to light and the way the physical world responds to light with illumination, reflection and emanation.”
Dominique Nahas is an art critic and independent curator based in Manhattan. He is also a regular reviewer for Art in America and the editor of d'Art International
All text and images contained on this site copyright Barry Masteller 2019