My painter friends and acquaintances see differently than I do. There is a lot more behind their eyes: deep and broad knowledge of visual art, as well as personal and cultural history. Looking at the same painting, we see differently. No corrective lens can compensate for what I lack in that regard, but being attuned to story, I share, at least, the narrative part of their vision. Walking through the showing rooms of Barbara Ernst Prey’s Maine gallery the other day, I lingered before certain paintings. Later, circling back, I realized that the narrative quality of particular pieces created an undeniable effect, at least as much as did their color, line, light, pattern, movement and evocative verisimilitude.
Humans make an impact and leave an imprint on the world around them; their physical environment bears witness to their actions, as their actions do to their moods and pains. Barbara Ernst Prey’s paintings, so often devoid of people, reveal the traces of human energy, of everyday labors, of loss and memory. Writers learn early the mostly true axiom: Show, Don’t Tell, which might translate to the comedian’s dictum: Don’t Explain the Joke or the more general advice: Don’t Bludgeon the Obvious. A visual subject that artists of less talent might render as cliché, Prey can transform into rich art, sometimes, into the iconic. Often what we glimpse in a Barbara Ernst Prey watercolor is emotional residue that suggests an unspoken story behind shuttered windows, empty moored boats and windblown lines of laundry. The unseen people either inside, on shore, buried or perhaps back “away” are the real subjects of the paintings. They do not invite us inside, but the painter bids us consider what we do not see directly. Whole stories resonate in the fullness of the image. I stand before “Harvest” then “Color Guards,” trying to understand what I am experiencing. The painting’s effect is not merely the equivalent of the final frame of a film. It is more akin to the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts epiphany a reader gets only at the end of a tightly wrought short story but which results from the whole reading experience, not merely from the last line or scene. I think of Joyce’s “The Dead” and Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing,” stories that call me back every year. Barbara Ernst Prey’s work is worth that kind of reading and rereading.
Barbara Ernst Prey’s: “American Contemporary: 40 Years Painting Maine” at Blue Water Fine Arts in Port Clyde, ME. Through August 31. Preview exhibit at http://www.bluewaterfinearts.com