Brian Novatny’s Lost and Found, at Marcia Wood Gallery through March 21, is, on one level, a compelling collection of storms and maritime disasters. Created by the energetic reworking of a single layer of oil paint, the roiling waves that overcome Novatny’s vessels also suggest psychological dimensions.
In fact, the more these (mostly) monochrome paintings are contemplated, the more suggestive depths open within them. This is the case, of course, with a good many of the shipwreck paintings that constitute Novatny’s precursors, from J. M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich onward. The ballads and poems that such paintings presuppose, ever since “Sir Patrick Spens,” also present shipwreck as an analogy for or actual consequence of human folly.
So Novatny is exploring intrinsically evocative territory. The vigor and imagination with which he conducts his exploration is what makes this body of work particularly intriguing. Novatny possesses a sense of appropriate scale when it comes to presenting particular mishaps, challenges and outright tragedies; the moments of greatest drama are typically reserved for larger canvases, although a few complex events are presented adroitly in small oils on paper. From the clouds and rough seas of Squall to the immense particularity of An Errant Wave, Novatny wrings the maximum metaphoric potential from the disparity between fragile vessel and the deep beneath it, an uneven match that was encoded in the prayerful exclamation of an earlier generation, “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
My choice of an antique allusion is intentional and appropriate: these paintings depict masted (or as in one title, De-masted) sailing vessels, openly echoing Novatny’s 19th-century artistic predecessors.
Novatny departs from his predominant monochrome strategy in Frigid Waters, where black and gray together prove necessary to render a misleadingly placid ocean meeting a sky in which clouds and fog cluster darkly all the way down to the horizon. But in general, he deploys the potential theatricality of black on white so effectively that it comes as a pleasant shock when he resorts to another color, such as the blue with which Gale Warning presents a sea and clouds only beginning to look troublous.
The combination of subject matter, dexterous rendering and implicit metaphor makes for a very satisfying exhibition.