Martha’s Vineyard artist Lanny McDowell returns to painting

Martha’s Vineyard artist Lanny McDowell returns to painting

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The Tashmoo Spring building will house Lanny McDowell's exhibit of new work starting June 29.

An avid birder, artist Lanny McDowell has in recent years built a reputation as an avian fine arts photographer.

Before that, waves, surf, and boats were some of his favorite subjects for the acrylic paintings displayed at his Ott Gallery in West Tisbury from 2004–07. Now this multi-talented artist has re-invented himself once again. What’s more, he’s picked a spectacular setting to show his new work.

The Tashmoo Spring Building in Vineyard Haven will house Mr. McDowell’s B2 – New Paintings exhibit from Friday, June 29, to Wednesday, July 4. The artist will hold a reception there Saturday, June 30, from 4 to 8 pm. Formerly known as the Tisbury Waterworks, the building was saved from collapse and has been under renovation since 2007.

A vintage brick building, Tashmoo Spring has won a place on the National Register of Historical Places. It sits in a hollow at the south end of Lake Tashmoo on a freshwater extension with a bubbling fountain at its center.

Mr. McDowell explained how he happened upon Tashmoo Spring as an exhibit site. He was driving by the entrance on West Spring Street last fall, saw a sandwich board sign advertising an upcoming art show, and turned in. The art show was for Tisbury Town employees. “The space was really cool,” he said.

The artist began work on a new series of 36-inch square paintings. “I took a deep breath and launched into painting what flowed onto the canvas, with no consideration as to marketability, current trends, the Vineyard context, or my past work,” Mr. McDowell said in an artist’s statement.

“The square format says it’s not a landscape,” he explained, “and I wanted to create something out of my fantasy world.”

The first paintings consisted of 81 squares, with smaller squares within them. Why squares? Who knows, he said, except that he started using them in some of his earlier wave portraits to draw the viewer into the water — the way a porthole might — and to elude the notion of landscape. He believes the grids he creates give his works continuity and discipline.

“I don’t do this as a shake-up item, but I do it as a wake-up,” Mr. McDowell said.

The color palette for the new work suggests the Southwest, where Mr. McDowell has been travelling regularly on birding trips over the past five or six years. Recurrent colors include earth tones –– the reddish or yellow shades of adobe, the bright reds, greens and blues of Southwest decorative arts.

Last week the artist took this writer through a selection of his new paintings, commenting on elements, inspirations and the painting process.

The pleasure and skill of one of the earlier works, like “Apache Dusk,” comes from the way the different colored squares interact, pop and jiggle the viewer’s perspective, providing what the artist describes as a visual mandala, a place to go to meditate. Lines are not ruler perfect; they’re drawn with a certain hand-made roughness on purpose.

“I could do it on the computer, but that’s not me,” Mr. McDowell said. He does put work in progress into Photoshop to play with color arrangements and other aspects.

“Starstruck” began as a painting of a moth, then veered away into squares and never went back. As his new painting style evolved, he began introducing figurative elements, a moth in the center of “Moth and Stars”; a Baltimore Oriole in “Oriole – Through the Temple Wall,” surrounded by what he calls “Lanny leaves,” since they are not botanically precise representations. With its red circle hovering in the center, “Life Under the Sea” is a reworking of an earlier wave painting that he was dissatisfied with in its original form.

One painting, “Moon Up,” Mr. McDowell called, “A painting I don’t know quite what to make of.” It has a leafless tree, squares with X’s and pink hues. He almost put a leopard in it, as well.

He designed “Tropicale” for someone who likes leaves, jungle vegetation in particular. The center square includes what looks like giraffe hide.

The paintings will speak for themselves without frames, and Mr. McDowell will sign them on the side. “It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you,” he said. He’ll be at Tashmoo Springs, ready to talk with the public at his June 30 opening and throughout the show.

Lanny McDowell, “Squares,” June 28–July 4; opening reception Saturday, June 30, 4–8 pm. Contact: 508-696-8826, lannymcdowellart.com.