This month the gallery is highlighting Moore’s instantly recognizable imagery with 11 paintings, each a masterwork of artistic transposition and contemplation.
Moore’s paintings reside at the semi-abstract yet representational end of a spectrum of watercolor approaches to the Maine landscape, a gamut that includes, on the representational side, Rockwell Kent, Andrew Wyeth, and on the abstract side John Laurent, Charles Burchfield, and John Marin.
A lyricist of the rugged outdoors, Moore was less interested in Modernism for its own sake than in the visual pleasures to be won from close observation and a careful balance of freedom and discipline.
Another Maine painter, Moore’s friend Edward Betts, captured Moore’s aesthetic well when he wrote, in Creative Seascape Painting, that Moore seized his subject matter’s abstract qualities to “invest his particular brand of realism with a crispness of handling and formal control of shape and space,” that privileged “order and organization” over literal rendering.
Like Hokusai and other classical Japanese masters of design, Moore joins his irregular lines and shapes into coherent, flowing compositions with a strong sense of organic unity. The disparate shapes and widely varied lights and darks in Porcupine in Winter Woods, (Watercolor, 15" x 21 ¾") cohere with a tremendous “variety in unity.” Moore tends to organize pictorial space much like an abstract painting, employing large interlocking geometric shapes with strongly varied weights and densities. Over this he often raises stark rocks or lanky waves, tree trunks, or branches. In Porcupine, a dark vertical swath of pines on the right connects the outermost edge of the background hills all the way to the foreground’s extreme right corner via contrasting trunks of trees. To bring us immediately back into the sweep of the circular composition, connecting horizontal lines shoot out from the foreground mass. These lines trace the already pronounced edge of light gray snow before curving back up on the far left straight into the central ring of middle and background trees, where the eponymous porcupine perches on a branch in relief against the painting’s brightest lights. Everything is literally connected with everything else; no line or mass stands stranded outside the whole.
The same kind of pictorial unity connects the more angular and less self-embedded shapes of Meadow Birds in Snow (Watercolor, 20 1/4" x 27 3/4"). In this foreground, a bold series of grasses pokes through a night-black drift. Yet, as the wind bends their stems uniformly to the right, each separate plant literally connects to its neighbor, forming a delicate chain that roughly parallels the edge of the snowy meadow. But rather than leave the painting’s left hand side as does the edge of snow-shadow against which it has been moving, the sweetly rendered meadow-grass curves back up to connect (actually, not just figuratively) to a more or less subtle vertical thrust of trees and weeds that in turn connects to a sloping diagonal that leads the eye back down toward the center of the painting.
In Cormorant Grouping, Maine (Watercolor, 19 1/8" 27") Moore gives his jagged crashing waves and sea spray a frozen, Hokusai-like intricacy. Unlike the tranquil, Zen-like emptiness of space in some of the landscapes (particularly the snowy ones), the foregrounds of Moore’s surf paintings often contain caches of stones, shards, shells, or sea glass – small fragmented treasures for the eye. Moore in Cormorant opens a window onto churning stones and chunks of ice within the linear confines of just one of his black, foreground waves.
Clear and Cold (Watercolor, 15" x 21 7/8") has the sparse expressiveness of a Japanese brush painting or a late watercolor by Cezanne. Here, a wide range of sharp and pliable horizontal shapes undulates in a counterpoint of jags, waves, bulges and dips, punctuated by the sharp verticals of foreground trees and background outcroppings. Gracefully swerving forward from the middle ground, a procession of flat-black rocks gains momentum as it approaches the viewer then dissipates into the unbroken field of foreground snow.
A similar strategy enlivens Weasel Tracks Near Cider Hill (Watercolor, 14 3/8" x 21"), where amid two rounded, asymmetrical swaths of lighter snow, the animal tracks sweep into the foreground field with an almost Fibonaccian inevitability, as if the tracks and snow shadows are moving according to hidden natural laws, like ripples in a pond.
Complementing this lively yet “formal control of space and shape,” Moore’s masterful technique in this most unforgiving medium impresses with its variety and sureness of hand. Passages of atmospheric color wash beneath meticulous almost skeletal marks resembling burin-strokes in an etching. Flat black areas punctuate liquid flows of subtly modulated halftones and lights. Vague edges throw sharp ones into relief, and fluid lines slither into balance with straight ones.
Moreover, the watercolors of Robert Eric Moore are never still. Rhythm, the implied, directional movement of lines, masses, and brushstrokes, animates these paintings, especially the seascapes, with a quiet vitality. Not immediately apparent is the role played by chance, a sort of occupational hazard of the medium, and an important part of why Moore chose it.
“I love chance,” Moore once stated, “So did (John) Marin. But after all that’s what watercolor is all about: possibility.”
As noted by Michael Culver, curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art’s 2008 exhibition of Moore’s watercolors, it was perhaps the unpredictable, elusive nature of the Maine coast that tempted the artist again and again to try and capture it. “The ocean, because of the way it moves, is very, very hard to get a grip on,” Moore said. “Unlike a house, or a boat, or tree, it is there one minute and gone the next.”
-Christopher Volpe for the Banks Gallery