Rez Williams and his not-so-typical landscapes and seascapes

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After decades of focusing on objects — specifically fishing boats — for his artistic output, painter Rez Williams has returned to landscape painting. A residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland in 2014 jumpstarted a renewed interest in depicting scenes in nature. For the past two years, Williams has worked on creating a series of large-scale paintings of the rugged coast and untamed forests of tiny Monhegan Island, Maine. A selection of these vivid large-scale paintings will be featured through August 7 at A Gallery in West Tisbury.

The artist didn’t set out with a plan to use Monhegan as the subject for his latest undertaking. On an impulse, he and his wife artist Lucy Mitchell stopped over at the island while on an impromptu camping trip in 2017. An artists’ colony flourished on Monhegan in the 19th and early 20th century, and artists continue to be drawn to the island. However, Williams didn’t arrive there seeking inspiration. It was mere curiosity that drove him to visit. And he found the landscape surprisingly uninspiring.

“This was a primal landscape untouched by humans,” recalls the artist. “Dense, impenetrable forest that goes right down to the water’s edge with no beach. It was daunting and off-putting, and there seemed to be no points of reference. At first I could see no majesty in the subject. There was nothing that I felt worthy of taking a picture of.”

Still, Williams snapped a few shots before returning to the Vineyard, and printed out some images from his computer to give them a once-over. “I started to see elements that I thought I might be able to work with. I began to see abstract possibilities to organize the material into imagery that was both unusual and exciting. The paintings seemed to head in the direction of being self-referential rather than as descriptive reverence for a place, which would be a common and comfortable format of landscape painting.”

The resulting paintings from his first trip to Maine were exhibited at A Gallery in 2017. The next year, Williams went back to Monhegan with the intention of examining the landscape with a bit more of a critical eye. “The second time I was more focused, more selective,” he says. With the second series of Monhegan paintings, Williams has further abstracted the images: “I wanted to work larger to get a sense of what I began to see as the magnificence of this chaos, and also to simplify and tease out the abstract elements that seemed to underpin the visual pleb.”

The current series now on display at the A Gallery features boulders, fallen and felled trees, and studies of water as it is subjected to the jagged rocks of the shoreline. Williams has tended toward close-up examination of particular focal points, providing a sense of intimacy and immediacy. These are not typical land or seascapes. For one thing, Williams is not so much focused on the beauty and drama of the land as a whole. He finds aesthetic value in the primitiveness of untamed nature. And he eschews horizons, dramatic skies, and the long view for a closer examination of objects.

The artist has a very distinctive style. He does not rely on meticulous blending and indistinct outlines to capture a realistic or impressionistic view with true-to-life colors. Rather he uses bold brushstrokes and a mastery of blunt color placement to create a sort of combination of abstract and representational styles.

Williams’ style has evolved from his early days as a hard-edge painter, creating abstract art through severely delineated areas of color. That method has carried over to his current work in which the artist makes expert use of interesting juxtapositions of strong colors and sharp outlines.

The fishing boat paintings that Williams has become well known for took advantage of this approach — using color and blocking to create strong, vivid images. In going back to landscape painting, something that Williams made his mark with on the Vineyard when he showed at various galleries here in the 1970s and ’80s, the artist is looking at expanding his vision.

“The problem with the fishing boat paintings was the issue of having one dominant form,” he says. “It was an aristocratic setup where the one image dominated a picture plain. My time in Ireland forced me to go back to landscapes. The notion of composing a foreground is a more socialistic process. That sort of loosened me up.”

When asked if he finds it important to keep on pushing new ground as an artist, Williams replies, “I think that’s a necessary function of an artist. Otherwise you’re just producing product.”