Neil Masterman: A Maestro of Many Styles from the UK

Any exhibition by the British autodidact Neil Masterman could almost be described as a one-man group show, given the broad range of styles and effects this virtuoso artist commands, several of which can be seen at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from June 26 through July 17. (Reception: Thursday, June 26, from 6 to 8pm.)

Two of Masterman's favorite quotes about painting, included in an address book of his paintings that is a popular seller in England, are "Painting is a journey into the unknown" and "Painting is how you feel at the time." Both seem to apply to his own work, which is bright and upbeat in a manner akin to Hockney and Peter Blake, but also shares a sense of playfulness with that other British free spirit Colin Self.

This is especially apparent in Masterman's sunsets, painted on Caribbean holidays, which combine an almost childlike exuberance with an innate visual sophistication. Working in acrylic on paper, Masterman is an uninhibited colorist, applying brilliant reds and yellows with what might appear to be abandon, if not for his marvelous instinct for chromatic harmonies. In "Caribbean Sunset," for example, the central orb explodes like an egg tossed into a table fan, and its overall effect is as dynamic as Orphist abstraction by Frank Kupka. Yet the composition is brought back down to earth by Masterman's somewhat more restrained depiction of the luminous blue water into which the yolk spills its glittering reflections, as well as the sober dark rocks nearby. In "Sunset II" however, the entire composition comes alive with fiery hues that show a kinship to the Fauves.

By contrast, in other paintings such as "My Back Garden" and "Kings Street Mish Mash," Masterman works in a much more subdued palette dominated by earth colors and shard-like shapes that pay homage to Cubism without appearing in the least bit derivative. Which is to say, he puts the geometric vocabulary of the cubists to his own uses to capture his response to his immediate surroundings. The results are unpretentious and intimate, the latter quality enhanced by his tendency to work on easel-scale.

While the relatively modest scale of Masterman's pictures might have marginalized him a few short years ago, when British and American painters alike were under the sway of Abstract Expressionism, the postmodern era has seen a rise in appreciation for the smaller picture that puts him right in the swing of things. Indeed, the unprepossessing size of his pictures makes them all the more remarkable for how they command our attention through the boldness of their forms and their vibrant colors alone.

Paintings such as "Red Houses after Van Gogh" and "Penny's Flowers," a buoyant garden scene that seems especially British, are particularly appealing in this regard. And although they may be somewhat anomalous in an oeuvre given overall to more representational, albeit innovatively handled subjects, abstractions such as "You Guess" and "Troubles Gone" are lively and intriguing explorations of pure form and color. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is "Lips," an especially small yet striking realist rendering of a moistly glistening feminine mouth making a Monroe-like moue with the look of a Pop icon.

Image Credits: You Guess, Acrylic on Paper, 23" x 15"

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