Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Painting 3 of 10: Dr. Syn

Dr. Syn
Andrew Wyeth, 1981

Poor Andrew Wyeth. Even with a new retrospective exhibition doing the rounds Wyeth is often pooh-poohed by critics as belonging in "the company of.. an amiable mythmonger (like) Norman Rockwell" as opposed to more rarefied company. The main argument against Wyeth is that he has taken the specialized artistic talents bequeathed him by his illustrator father N.C. Wyeth and has tried to spin them into something more than the sum of their parts (much the same accusation has been levelled at Martin Amis in regard to his father Kingsley in the literary realm).

I hadn't heard of the Wyeths until I moved to Maine. Now however I live in what tourist officials would no doubt love to dub the heart of "Wyeth Country"; Rockland, ME- home to the Farnsworth Museum and the Wyeth Center and where Andy and artistic scion Jamie come to do their grocery shopping and register their cars. I dare say that if she were still alive Christina Olsen could drag herself down Main Street and not see a single raised eyebrow. The Wyeth clan actually lives about 12 miles away on the St George Peninsula, but it is no great bother to hop in the car and drive through the landscapes the family paints. For Wyeth there is mystery in this land while for me there appears to be mostly mud, but I do appreciate the way Andrew and Jamie paint the odd light and ragged claustrophobic edges of this part of the Pine Tree State.

For while they might be from away, mere seasonal dillitantes, the Wyeths do manage to capture much of the essence of this state. The feeling of distance, not far enough to be epic like out west but rather more like spaces created by both humans and the environment in an almost distracted yet slightly studied way. Even with its relative size for a New England state, much of Maine is empty by choice not due to vast distances and it really is a fraudulent wilderness given the nearby presence of Quebec to the north and the more populous New England states to the south. Unlike Texas, nowhere in Maine could you feasibly drive between dawn and dusk and not hit a habitation unless you chose to; it just feels like you could. Often when in the woods, the supposed forest primeval reveals your predecessors- a crumbling barn wall in a clearing long reclaimed by trees, or an aging cemetery on the side of a seemingly prehistoric lake shore. Wyeth's paintings present that dichotomy in stark detail.

But back to Dr. Syn and the idea that Andrew had best mind the example of his father. The idea that he is overreaching and should retreat into the work habits of N.C. is the central joke of this painting. The laughing skeleton is Andrew himself, wearing a naval officer's coat from the War of 1812 that used to belong to his father and his father's mentor Howard Pyle before him. Both N.C. and Pyle were prolific illustrators of adventure stories (N.C. famously illustrated a wonderful edition of Treasure Island) and used the coat in sketches and paintings of everyone from pirates to Revolutionary War soldiers. Andrew has placed himself aboard a ship (maybe a pirate ship) and is looking out of the stern into his wake. Perhaps without his father's coat he would literally be stripped to the bone, or maybe if he draped himself in his father's mantle he would be reduced to a mere skeleton of himself doomed to forever be looking backward.

Whatever the meaning, it looks like a big "fuck you" to his critics to me...


Listmaker said...

---amiable mythmonger

sounds like someone we both know and love, doesn't it?

weasel said...

That person would take it as a compliment.