The artistic circle that included the late Northwest masters Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Kenneth Callahan included in its ranks a number of younger artists, and several of these painters are still active in and around town. Clayton James and Bill Cummings have both had a number of recent shows, but their contemporary Neil Meitzler, now residing in Walla Walla, has been absent from the Seattle scene for many years. His current show at the Martin-Zambito Gallery on Capital Hill is thus the first chance many will have to see his work. Meitzler, who years ago shared a Cascade retreat with Callahan, has long been known as a painter of imaginary mountain landscapes and falling water. The new work, while focusing on Meitzler’s traditional subject matter, experiments in intriguing ways with the shifting boundary between realism and abstraction. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
In 1915, the Russian Kasimir Malevich exhibited Western Art’s first completely abstract painting — a radically stripped down image of a white square on a white background. Artists in the decades that followed began charting paths through the newly defined regions of the real and the abstract, regions that turned out to have no clear boundaries. Some artists, like Mark Rothko and William De Kooning followed a route that led from realism to abstraction, while others, like Phillip Guston, journeyed from representation to abstraction and back again.
Neil Meitzler, in his current show, does both sorts of painting at once. Though all the works share the subject matter of craggy mountains, barren rocks, and cascading water, the pictures themselves range from images in which abstraction merely boils under a realistic surface, to pictures in which the mountain subject is barely visible through the abstraction. This intriguing but uneven show gives us a look at the work of someone for whom painting remains, after many years in the trenches, a process of experimentation and exploration.
In the striking image, "After the Storm," perhaps the strongest painting in the exhibit, a glittering, pyramid-shaped boulder rises in the foreground, its harsh edges blade-like in the slanting light, its grey mass occupying more than half the canvas, like a mountain in miniature. Beyond is an alpine lake — a flat, featureless slab of dark grey paint — above which rises a range of sharp peaks in dark silhouette under a troubled sky.
Using a palette limited to warm, cool, and neutral grays, Meitzler constructs an image which is compelling in its severe atmosphere, a world where anything living has been blasted away by wind and ice. Large areas flirt with abstraction, like the distant mountains and sky, fractured by diagonals and spirals, purposely flattened and stylized.
Under nearly everything is a lively, partly obscured layer of highly calligraphic paint — paint that has been spattered, wiped, and shaped in an evolved technique that owes much to eastern art, and much to Tobey, Graves, and Callahan. The spirit of this and the other pictures in the show harkens back to the 19th Century romantics and their ideal of the sublime — seeing nature as a force larger than humans, and which they regard with awe.
At times that awe is expressed in a sense of colossal scale, as in the painting, "Evening Light," where on a vertical canvas a mountain stretches upwards to the last light of the sun, a dark, measureless blue wall of living rock. Here, as in several other pictures in the show, the texture of the mottled paint surface below the faceted surface is so independent of the rest of the image as to undermine the final effect, becoming more a repeated mannerism than a way of organically expressing the subject.
More successful are pictures like,"Mountain Storm," where the tables are turned, and the abstract rather than descriptive elements of the picture dominate. Here thick silver paint built up into buttery ridges, flat planes slanted and fractured like broken glass, and a background of smoky grey and white, are barely but sufficiently identifiable as sky, mountain, and storm.
In several of the images, Meitzler takes the imaginative leap of having the mountain landscape move from the vast to the intimate, a single ridge flowing from the distance onto a simple wooden table, like an embodiment of William Blake’s yearning to hold infinity in the palm of his hand.
Abstraction originally came into being as an attempt to express states of mind that had no counterpart in the visual world. In the same sense, Neil Meitzler’s visionary paintings are as much records of an inner life as they are depictions of the outer world.