Waiting For the Fishermen 2, 27 x 19

The Paintings of Max Werner are Filled with Natural Imagery

Realism, Minimalism, and Surrealism may seem miles apart; but Max Werner, a painter and printmaker born in Belgium and currently living in the United States, is an artist who professes an interest in René Magritte, yet paints mostly landscapes. What aligns him with Minimalism is the spareness of his compositions, and as literally down to earth as the subject matter of his acrylic paintings may be, they often evoke an undertone of the otherworldly. It probably has much to do with the sense of great stillness in wide open spaces which strikes one most immediately in Werner’s compositions. Take “Snow over the Pass,” for example. This black and white acrylic on canvas is one of his sparest pictures of all: a great expanse of virgin snow, spotted here and there with minute footprints, a row of three bare trees in the middle distance, and a process of tiny silhouetted riders on horseback way off yonder . . . Altogether as abstract as the three dots preceding this fragment of a sentence, yet totally realistic! Another example of Max Werner’s ability to create an engaging composition out of near microscopic elements is “Wasp and Bug,” in which the central figures are the tiny insects that the title describes. What looks like a single silvery bar runs vertically from the top to the bottom on the left side of the canvas. It suggests an aluminum frame dividing two panes of glass on either a window or patio door. On the right pane, the bug perches, apparently unaware of the predatory wasp circulating in the air nearby. Although insects often play a significant role in traditional Chinese painting, symbolizing any number of things depending on the particular dynasty, and are sometimes employed as markers of balance, an important element of the Asian aesthetic, they rarely appear in Western art. Here, Werner does indeed create an exquisite sense of balance in the composition by virtue of his precise placement of the two tiny creatures, and since a wasp’s daily diet consists of insects, this composition sets up a dramatic tension reminiscent of the old rhyme about the spider and the fly. Such subtle drama, also seen in “Untitled,” another insect painting of what appear to be two gray displaced dragonflies (at least to a layman with no knowledge of entomology) circling in an off-white room where the only other touch of color is a red EXIT sign above a gray door in an adjoining room. Color, however, while always employed with an admirable restraint in the paintings of Max Werner, is by no means absent from most of Werner’s landscapes. In fact, it is quite vibrant in “Yellowstone Meadows” and “Over the Pass,” in the latter of which the artist revisits the site of the aforementioned monochromatic snow scene in a season where the white of both the sky and the land has taken on a wide range of natural hues. By the same token, the sense of an unfolding story is frequently present, as seen in “Waiting for the Fishermen,” in which two seagulls perch on a low wall in the foreground, gazing out over the water as eagerly as fishermen’s wives waiting for the boats to come in, while a big overcast sky broods above distant blue mountains. –– Peter Wiley Max Werner, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, May 16 - June 5, 2014. Reception: Thursday, May 22, 6 - 8pm.

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