Review: Willoughby Elliott Retrospective at New Bedford Art Museum


Published in the New Bedford Standard Times on November 11, 2011

Artists often choose the subject of landscape as a way to reiterate the nostalgic and the familiar. In contrast, Fairhaven artist Willoughby Elliott, whose retrospective is now on view at the New Bedford Art Museum, uses landscape to highlight the new and the unexpected. Through vibrant color and boundless space, Elliott's paintings remind us that there is a world to discover beyond what we already know and understand.

In this exhibit, Elliott's works seem to divide themselves along stylistic lines into four distinct groupings, each revealing successive stages of his development as an artist.

The earliest stage is represented by the artworks hanging in the front room of the museum. These include three screen prints of neutral-hued stacked seashells, and three close-up views of wave-worn shell skeletons in pale pinks and peaches. Beside them is the "Celestial Clock" series, a triptych showing rounded forms such as eggs, lemons and garlic bulbs nestled inside rows of ceramic bowls. With their tenderly rendered tones, brushy surfaces, and natural subject matter, these contemplative canvases anticipate the more dramatic directions to come.

Elliott seems to have found his voice when he ventured into the realm of landscape. The compositions of his initial outdoor views draw directly from his previous still-life studies — namely, rounded forms isolated in a wide-open field — but the shells on a tabletop have become trees in a meadow.

At first, Elliott incorporates the same muted hues. "Unplanted Field," for example, displayed in a room hung with these earlier landscapes, echoes the quiet pink and peach tones of the shell paintings. But there are hints in the brilliant reds, peeking out in patches, of an upcoming change in palette.

The next gallery in the museum reveals the subsequent step in Elliott's landscapes: unabashed bursts of vibrant pigment. These paintings continue his preference for molded tree groupings engulfed by sky and land, but now the three compositional elements blaze with color. The formerly shy peach has turned into volcanic orange, the quiet mauve has transformed into glowing grape, and the soft lemon yellow is now a rich mustard tone.

Elliott's repeated use of complementary color schemes heightens the dramatic impact. "Autumn Reflection," one of the paintings from this period, shows a grove flashing scarlet for the season, made all the more dynamic by its placement alongside the deep green of nearby pines.

The galleries along the left-hand side of the museum display Elliott's more recent considerations of landscape. Here he has pushed the formal concerns of abstraction and color layering. What were once isolated trees, vulnerable but steadfast, clinging to their spot of open land, have become masses of forest that stretch decisively from one side of the canvas to the other. They are still recognizable as vegetation, but they look more like colored stripes than individual plants.

Also, Elliott's colorations have become more sophisticated in their layering. He has integrated the subtle tonalities of the still-life paintings with the flashes of jewel-like hues from his mid-career landscapes. In "Sunday Morning," for example, Elliott's trees march in a flat band across the surface, textured with soft greens and oranges where the sunlight brushes their uppermost branches, to dark greens in the shade underneath. A broad swath of clouds arches along the top of the canvas, while a carpet of vivid orange and steadying brown spreads across the field in the foreground. Passion and peace seem to have found a place together. Elliott's paintings celebrate the magic and the mystery waiting to be uncovered just below the surface. The ever-unfolding discovery process means everything to this artist; it is what gives Elliott's work its vitality and its purpose.