Robert Pollien, “Itshitzuki Spruce,” 2012, oil on linen, 16 x 10 in.
Robert Pollien, “Itshitzuki Spruce,” 2012, oil on linen, 16 x 10 in.
I have admired Robert Pollien's paintings for a while now, and his current show of 18 small paintings at Rockland's Dowling Walsh Gallery confirms my assessment of him as a painter who is not averse to taking risks. June 23 is the last day to see these recent works.

What sets Pollien's works apart from a lot of similarly accomplished landscape painting is the dark, brooding quality with which he invests his coastal scenes, his emphasis on flatness over spatial illusion, and the major compositional role contour plays. Pollien uses neither the busy, impressionistic brushwork of many other Maine landscapists, nor the total flatness of Alex Katz's paintings. Instead, he has absorbed the lessons of one of his teachers, Neil Welliver, without succumbing to his horror vacui, filling every last bit of surface and giving all equal importance. Pollien has also looked at the clarity of Rockwell Kent's compositions and has studied the art of some excellent illustrators, from whom he gleaned the propensity for letting forms abut, all sitting in one plane. His personal style has crystalized over time into simple compositions in which weighty masses are set against air and water, and their shared edges assume great importance.

There is also a second body of work on display: five portraits of crows. There is barely an intimation of ground, and only a few pink and light blue patches indicate sky. This near omission of physical environment finds its parallel in the lack of inner articulation of the crows' bodies. Instead, their most expressive features, posture, beak, and beady eyes, are silhouetted against the background. One can almost hear their remonstrative cawing. They are being themselves, proud, alert, and a bit belligerent, certainly intelligent-alter egos of the artist?

What ties these crow paintings to the landscapes are the importance of singular masses and the treatment of their outlines. Loosely brushed lines of blue and purple act as colorful highlights and accentuate the birds' contours. While these painterly incidents appear spontaneous, I suspect they are very deliberately placed. The palette of both bodies of work is similarly dark, with variations of blue and black predominating. Some of the rocky coastlines are similar to Pollien's earlier work. The vertical "Hunter's Cliff," for instance, contains a brooding, diagonal mass of rocks with crevices and protuberances only intimated. Depth is evoked through layering of sea and landmasses. While here, too, brushed lines emphasize the edges, substantive mass draws most attention. In the work I find most intriguing, however, Pollien has taken these tendencies toward flatness and abstracted decorativeness significantly further. These paintings' delicate beauty derives from a subjugation of representation to linearity in the form of undulating edges of paint that separate water, rock and air.
The simple composition of "Itshitzuki Spruce" is divided diagonally into a combination of rocks and trees and sky, with the latter pierced by a lone, tall spruce whose awkward cropping conveys the necessary weight to balance the composition. The boulder at the center of the image and the surrounding rocky surfaces are described texturally with a few strokes of white, rust and black washes. The variegated edges of the tree seem to compete with the surrounding sky. The spruce appears less substantial, as the grain of the linen canvas remains visible, whereas the sky is built up of multiple layers of paint. Additional brushwork at these intersections of materiality turns them into abstract organic patterns. Edges almost lose their representational function and become battle lines between elements. The title of the painting refers to a style of bonsai that grows on rocks, and the asymmetric composition, verticality, and general stylistic traits bring to mind Japanese woodcuts and Asian scroll paintings, too.

In the six-by-six-inch "Seawall Surf," description breaks up into dots and lines, making it the most abstract work in the show. The painting functions like a study that captures only basic locations of shapes. The artist moves the furthest away from conventional landscape painting in "Valley Cove," not in terms of abstraction but in terms of subject matter and concepts of beauty. Depicting a single boulder on a beach, land, water and sky are all greys and blues with just a few pink highlights, turning the image into a Whistlerian arrangement of tonalities.

Pollien's work has an edge to it that is in keeping with the raw forces of nature his paintings capture. They are full of inner drama. None of the paintings seem to have come easily to Pollien, which I consider the hallmark of a deeply self-reflective and utterly serious artist. These paintings introduce us to a kind of beauty that goes far beyond what is visible to the eye.