Memories in mist

Whitney Cleary’s ‘New Landscapes,’ on exhibit at the Feldman Family Artspace.

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The inner and outer worlds seamlessly shift back and forth in Whitney Cleary’s misty landscapes. “My work represents a single moment,” Cleary says. “A memory that exists within a life, but also of the world surrounding that life.”

While inspired by the photographs she takes around the Island, the oil paintings hover between realism and abstraction. Her show, “New Landscapes,” at the Feldman Family Artspace, curated by the Featherstone Center for the Arts for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, is experiential. The works evoke both memories and emotions.

Cleary refrains from titling her art: “I hate giving my paintings titles. It’s my least favorite part of the whole process.” By simply titling them with Roman numerals, she leaves space for each of us to have our own unique interpretation. 

“I don’t want to put too much of myself in there,” Cleary shares. “I don’t want it to be a specific space, but rather have it be what the viewer thinks it is. It’s whatever memory the work sparks, or whatever you want it to be it can be.” Her work involves us in what she describes as the “conflict between the obvious beauty of our surroundings and our differing interpretations of that same view. They trigger memories that bring you to another place that you’ve been before.”

Cleary painted most of the pieces this winter. The show’s largely muted tones of blues and grays add to the otherworldly sense of the season. The monochromatic element makes it easier to go to that magical place. While none of the paintings are clearly identifiable locations, the works evoke the Vineyard’s special light when the air is heavy with moisture. Cleary is pulled toward vagueness, though, saying, “I think it gives them more emotion. There are more blanks to fill in, which can create more atmosphere and more feeling.” Each composition has a life of its own outside of the actual physical location that inspired them. She says, “I want people to have a personal reaction to them outside anything I did.”

Cleary, a self-taught artist originally from Western Massachusetts, works in a lot of layers. Yet peering closely at her surfaces, they are remarkably flat. Her tools aren’t paintbrushes but rather sponges, paint rollers, paper towels, and sandpaper. Cleary’s emphasis is one of subtraction, removal of paint. Most of the works, which vary in size, are on wood, which can handle her continual application and elimination of the oils, resulting in their enticing flatness. 

Occasionally, Cleary’s pieces come about in one sitting. At other times she works on them and then puts the painting aside to come back to it later. “Sometimes I feel like I’m getting to something that I like, but I hate forcing it,” she says. “Then it can get frustrating or muddy. I find it best to work on a lot of paintings a little bit at a time.”

It’s not surprising that Cleary used to write poetry, as the works have a very lyric sensation. When first exploring the visual arts, she started with macramé wall hangings, then one day after she moved here in 2012, there were paints lying around, and she just jumped in.

Ann Smith, Featherstone’s executive director, says she first saw Cleary’s art last summer. “I just fell in love with the work. I think it’s just magical,” Smith said. “We were delighted when she applied for a show. It was an easy yes from the arts committee.”

Cleary says her style is still evolving.

“I want to see where they go. This isn’t the end product. I know it’s going to keep moving forward,” she says.

“New Landscapes” is on exhibit in the lobby of the M.V. Film Center through May 22. For more information, visit featherstoneart.org/feldmanfamilyartspace.html.

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