Severity, Serenity, Sunshine

April 1, 1986 § Leave a comment


Mary Robertson | Marker Under Bridge

San Francisco Chronicle

Reflected sunlight seems to radiate from Mary Robertson’s small paintings at the Charles Campbell Gallery.

Robertson paints shore views, bathers and the paraphernalia of water sports. Some of her pictures describe the Russian River near her Guerneville home, others are seaside vistas.

Though her images are sunlit, and her colors sweet, Robertson’s vision is not falsely cheerful. People in her pictures often are depicted alone against stretches of water and shore, leading us to wonder whether they are as isolated as they appear. Her work brings to mind the severities of Thomas Eakins’s paintings as often as the serenity of John Kensett’s, or the flickering palette of Maurice Prendergast.

When she paints a wooden diving platform offshore in the river, she finds a wonderful pretext for deploying color in the play of sunlight ad shadow on its struts and crossbeams Yet here too the platform’s vacancy hints at a solitude tinged with loneliness.

To my eye, the finest pictures in the show are the tiny views of a distant island under changing lights and weathers. All but one are on squares of Masonite. At a distance, the images appear to be behind mats, as though they were prints. Up close, you can see that Robertson has centered each image on its panel and painted the periphery a cold white. The surrounding area that appears to be mat actually courses with the energy of measured brush strokes.

The images themselves are so simple that you easily can choose to view them as abstract. But seen as seascapes, they are wonderfully economical and precise uses of color to suggest time of day and conditions of light and air.

Part of their fascination lies in the way they appear to bring vast spaces within tight confines. For all their lyricism, they also suggest the experience of an isolated observer, the island insinuating itself as the artist’s counterpart. In fact, the island views are so intimate and yet so expansive that they become metaphors for the mind’s eye in the tradition of American Lumnist art and of what Robert Rosenblum calls the Northern Romantic Tradition.

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