March 29, 2006

Alan Bray’s casein-on-panel landscapes are cool, elegant, and blessedly devoid of prettiness… [They]evoke nature’s majesty but drain away its wildness, suggesting something of the poise and repose of Giotto or Mantegna.

-The New Yorker

This is praise that Alan Bray, who has studied and painted the central Maine highlands for more than forty years, comes by honestly. Ironically, it took an extended sojourn in Florence, Italy, to reveal the depth of his bond to his native landscape and to develop an art The New Yorker has described as “mediations on landscape, rather than attempts to open a window on the world.”

Alan Bray was born in Waterville, Maine, on January 12, 1946, but he grew up in Monson, a small slate-quarrying town set in the northern reaches of the Appalachians. It was here, hiking and camping with liked-minded childhood friends, that he began to exercise his natural inquisitiveness as a tool for building woods-craft. In these rugged foothills, ever alive with the turning of the seasons yet always plainly bearing the imprint of eons-old geologic upheaval, Bray learned to find his way around in a world of enigmatic signs and divergent trails. Unwittingly, before ever picking up a brush, he developed the sensibilities of a landscape painter by developing sensitivities to the relationships between the living and the ancient land on which life depends.

Later, when Bray decided to study art formally, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Boston, where he first felt the appeal of image-making as a way of understanding the world. Three years of studio work revealed the need for a more traditional approach to the discipline of painting, one informed by the broader range of a liberal education, a revelation that prompted Bray to enroll at the University of Southern Maine, from which he graduated in 1971. While this education was in many ways a success – particularly in the way it engendered literacies in fields outside the fine arts – it was nevertheless incomplete: well-prepared now for the next leg of the journey, Bray traveled to Florence to study at Villa Schifanoia Graduate School of Fine Arts.

Villa Schifanoia, Florence, the Italian Renaissance held many treasures and gave freely to a painter who was now mature enough in his art to receive them. Chief among them were these three:

First, a new medium and a new physical structure for his paintings –tempera on panel. The technical challenges of this medium, the necessary adjustments in craft, and the limitations of scale favored, and inspired, someone of a practical as well as a visionary intelligence.

Second, the examples of the masters Bray routinely visited at the Museo di San Marco and the Uffizi – Fra Angelico, Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini – painters whose work struck Bray then as being extraordinarily modern, painters he learned to admire, above all, for their depth of spirituality.

Third, a renewed and growing attachment to the places where he had first learned to look at nature. Being a student in Florence, exploring the opportunities and challenges of a new medium, guided by Renaissance masters, Bray began painting the landscape of his childhood – from memory. And when he returned to Monson, Maine, in 1975, he discovered it to be a richer resource for making art than he had ever imagined.

Bray and his wife Diana, now the parents of two grown children, live not far from Monson in Sangerville, where they settled thirty years ago, on their return from Florence, and where, with the like-minded friends of his adulthood, Bray participates generously in promoting the arts and community enrichment in the spare, small-town culture of a rural state. But his work as an artist is to paint a record of the quiet panorama of life unfolding on the margins of the central Maine farmland and in the woods beyond the towns. A close, careful, and astute observer, he frequently finds the subjects of his paintings in events and processes that elude an eye less keen, or a mind more intent on discovering Nature’s grandeur.

As a naturalist and painter alike, Bray is interested in what ordinarily goes unobserved. “I paint what is right around me,” he says. “Occasionally it’s a big subject, but more often it’s a bird’s nest or a farm pond.” Like the simple geometries of his compositions, however, Bray’s choice of unobtrusive subjects rather than showy ones – of back-water meanders rather than mountaintop vistas – is deceptive. The paintings themselves are anything but homely, anything but ordinary. As Christian Science Monitor critic Ted Wolff has observed, “What seems like a nice little landscape painting becomes increasingly odd the longer you look at it. [Bray] captures the enigmatic quality of the ordinary and the commonplace. And he’s so sure of himself and what he’s doing, he doesn’to have to show it off.”

The source of qualities other critics have ascribed to Bray’s Maine landscapes – “idyllic…melancholic,” “mesmerizing,” “haunting,” even “surreal” – Bray himself locates in the happy coincidence of two seminal influences: the persistent sense of imminent discovery awakened by his childhood adventures in the Maine woods and the meditative maturity bestowed on him by his 14th century Italian masters. “In Italy I saw art that I loved unabashedly and unreservedly. Art that was free of irony and cynicism, was deeply felt, spiritual, and above all, honest. So when I returned to central Maine, where I had always been close to nature, I spent many days hiking, climbing, fishing, camping, and observing it. I have always found it exciting and mysterious to just sit in some ordinary place and give myself to it for hours. I try to be there completely and let that place swallow me up in its rhythm, which goes on every hour of every day, with our without me.”

Becoming an expert reader of bogs, of shorelines, of rock slides and hillsides and fallow fields, of daybreaks and twilights and the cusps of seasons, Bray has found everywhere, in the quiet corners of his native terrain – “ in the way water moves or trees branch or little brooks dry out in a serious drought” – the sources of the spirituality that infuses his work and that makes it transformative rather than simply descriptive.

As critic Ken Greenleaf has said, “In Bray’s work, one always has the sense that there is something out there that is ready to become part of one’s life, that right around the corner is a force that will affect matters in some unpredictable way.”

“Bray’s landscapes show a Maine that is potentially as lonely as Hopper’s,” writes Donna Gold. “But it’s not loneliness that Bray depicts. He scratches through the isolation, pares off the personal sense of desolation, and reveals yet another layer, yet another mood – that of an almost impossible sense of mystic wonder.”

Author Edgar Allen Beem describes Bray’s vision as being “as fine, clear-eyed, and imaginative as any art of Maine has ever been.”

It is a vision born of an intricate craft, a master’s craft, itself an expression of this artist’s perceptions of the intricacies of the ordinary.

Bray paints in casein, a milk-based tempera that has virtually no drying time.Necessarily, his paintings are technically complex because they consist of thousands of tiny brush strokes, built up in layers, out of which the images – the vision – advance from the foundation of a mirror-smooth, absolute void of white ground. It is a method of painting that follows directly from his method of exploring his subjects.

“A place reveals itself slowly, as layer upon layer of my self-consciousness dissolves,” he says. The essential elements “advance and take precedence and…impart to a place its astonishing particularity.”

As an artist and as a native son of the territory, Bray shares the work ethic of his industrious neighbors, painting a full day and a full week in a routine that produces ten to a dozen paintings a year. Outside studio time, he spends hours exploring, observing, scouting out new trails, walking the margins of the seasons and the landscape – measuring the explosion of life in the vernal pool, the pattern of wind in the sweep of the hayfield, the undulations of the tree line through the heat waves above the brushfire, the chaos of the blizzard white-out and simple logic of the spring snow-melt…with what The New Yorker identifies as “analytic eye of the modernist still-life painter.”

-Dennis Gilbert