Exploring the beauty of fishing boats

Rez Williams
"Pacer, New Bedford," an oil on canvas by Rez Williams.

By Brooks Robards - August 9, 2007

West Tisbury artist Rez Williams continues his exploration of New Bedford-based fishing trawlers in an exhibit at the Carol Craven Gallery in Vineyard Haven. This remarkable show will hang through Friday, August 10, with unsold work remaining on view at the gallery.

The 19 paintings demonstrate an exciting new level of skill and depth that Williams brings to his art. They also give the lie to any presumption that portraits of these stolid, working-class vessels might lack interest as a subject matter. The opportunity to take them in as a body of work at the Craven Gallery is exceptional, and a collector would be hard put to choose a favorite.

"Acores, N.B." might be one choice. With dramatic shadows and red bumper buoys, its vibrant green hull rests in a marvelous mishmash of water and reflections. The compositional elegance of "Seel," makes it another good pick. The hull of the title boat sits sideways, with two others stacked up against each other like cards in a deck. Behind them, sky peters out into smoky blue and yellow with suggestions of clouds.

The boldness of "Pacer N.B." makes it another keeper. The boat's hull, painted a vermillion that reverberates in reflection through bright blue water and a background of sky, almost overwhelms the particularity of its cabin, cables, and hoists. Yet, the Pacer's rigging grounds the brilliant colors. This painting illustrates how successfully Williams weds the almost prosaic concreteness of the boats he has chosen as his subjects to the powerful and lyrically abstract renderings of water, sky, and harbor that make up their environment.

Drama highlights "Contender," a square painting where the boat, with its heavy, masculine bow, is set in a shocking, broad expanse of black water. In this case, backdrop takes on more traditional notions of sky than in many of the works on display.

Mr. Williams lets loose a tumultuous feast of angles and shapes in "T. Luis," the largest painting in the show. The muted colors he has chosen and its smaller size make the faded red boat recede into a surrounding abstraction of green clouds and black sky.

In a commanding position almost directly opposite the Craven Gallery's entrance hangs "Steel Seafarer," a giant portrait in gray of a vessel whose bow angles left. Anchors festoon the massive hull of the boat, and dock, harbor buildings and water loom below a pink sky on either side.

The artist employs a pink and mint green palette in "Dawn Arrival" in a way that allows the placid, feminine water of the painting's foreground to take precedence over the boat's masculine shape. Elements of color, form, and composition combine with a poetic subtlety.

In "My Way," Mr. Williams creates a study in abstraction, employing clean blocks of color to render his boat hulls. Olive cargo containers lurk behind the primary trawler and its companion, Voyager. The backdrop of sky contains angular clouds. The boat in "San Marcos II" also seems positioned in an abstraction of sky and water.

One of the pleasures of "Pacer" is its background, where a cityscape looms behind the cadmium-hulled boat in the foreground. The trawler nestles next to another blue hull, with two more boats behind it. Pacer's rigging reaches skyward next to a solid, multi-story commercial building, but this strangely shaped boat weights the painting to the left so that the eye heads back into city and sky. Green-hued water in the foreground rises up to meet the harbor and its buildings, while a street busy with cars heaves its way down to the water in the background. Overhead a mass of sky and clouds is populated by mysterious, brick-shaped forms, surely not birds.

Mr. Williams has included one conventional portrait in this collection of his work. "Self" depicts the artist, wearing brown horn-rimmed glasses, against a mauve and buff background. His blue eyes have vivid red pupils, aptly signifying their penetrating gaze. This painting offers a fitting introduction to an exhibit filled with inanimate objects that carry the stature of portraits.

Otherwise, human figures are mostly absent. Exceptions include a boat hand in "Last Voyage, Islander," a mermaid-decorated bow in "Sao Jacinto," and a workman standing on a float in "Diligence in Primer." Surrounded by staging, the latter figure helps the artist turn his boat hull into a patchwork of green and rust hues above drab green, yellow, and blue water reflections.

This exhibit of Mr. Williams's work may not have many human figures, but each of his fishing boats evokes a living presence in a fully inhabited world. It is a measure of his talent that he infuses his chosen subjects with so much life and vitality.

The Carol Craven Gallery is open Monday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm, Sunday, 11 am to 2 pm, and by appointment. The gallery is located on Breakdown Lane, Vineyard Haven. For more information, call 508-693-3535.