Art Notes: Painter Uses Oils and Tar to Plumb Darkness of ‘Moby-Dick’

  • "Westward," a painting in oil, tar and gold leaf on wood by Christopher Volpe, is among the works on view in "Loomings," an exhibition of Volpe's work in the Taylor Gallery at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden. (Courtesy image)

  • "Squall," oil paint and tar on canvas, by Christopher Volpe, is among the works on view at Taylor Gallery in Meriden.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Christopher Volpe never expected to find himself standing at the checkout counter of his local hardware store, buying a large quantity of roofing tar to daub onto a canvas in an experimental homage to Moby-Dick.

First off, he’d tried reading Herman Melville’s classic novel once before. He couldn’t get through it. He got lost in that “long slog of the middle chapters,” when the story of the whaling ship Pequod and its obsessive Captain Ahab veers more into the realm of nonfiction, discussing at great length the different classifications of whales, and various uses of their blubber.

He closed the book, exhausted by the overload of arcane information. But years later, when he was living in Portsmouth in his mid-30s, he picked it up again. What he took away from his second reading inspired “Loomings,” a series of paintings that draws on themes and passages from the book, and is even named for its first chapter. A selection of 14 paintings from the series is up in the Taylor Gallery at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden.

“It must have been (because of) those really dismal wintry nights, when the sea mists were coming in,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Hollis, N.H. “Something about the cold wind rattling at the windows. And I just got it then, and fell in love with the whole book.”

Even the middle chapters he read differently this time around.

“What I didn’t understand then is that Melville was actually making fun of scholarship,” Volpe said. “He’s parodying the whole idea that humanity or science can classify or dominate nature. … But that’s part of our hubris as a species.”

Now 52, he’s reread the book two or three times since then. He’s especially moved by Melville’s notion of “the inscrutable,” those great mysteries of the natural world that the human mind cannot begin to fathom. To him, the book was an “epic myth” that tells the story of humankind’s doomed quest to impose order on these inscrutable mysteries, like in one passage in which Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, regards a painting hanging in an old tavern. At first, all Ishmael sees in the painting are “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows,” but after studying it for longer, he decides the painting depicts a ship at sea during a gale, its three masts dismantled and impaling a great whale.

Volpe couldn’t help but wonder what that painting might look like, and he thought the most likely candidate for capturing its essence might be Albert Pinkham Ryder, a 19th- and 20th-century painter born in New Bedford, Mass., who was rumored to paint with such unorthodox materials as apple juice, blood and tar.

Tar. It occurred to Volpe that such petroleum-based substances are the whale oil of the 21st century: Like blubber in whaling’s heyday, fossil fuels are highly sought-after products of nature that have the power to “oil the machinery” of industrial civilization, and which we pursue with an Ahab-like obsession that destroys life — including, Volpe believes, our own.

“Because of our hunger, our insatiable hunger for energy and industry, we hunted whales almost to the point of extinction,” he said. Now it’s oil from the ground, not the sea, that fuels Western society’s self-destructive quest for power, “even at our own peril.”

And so, channeling Ryder, Volpe bought some tar, thinned it out with turpentine to a workable consistency and combined it with oil paint and gold leaf to create a visual accompaniment to Moby-Dick.

But learning to paint with tar, like learning to enjoy Melville, didn’t happen right away for Volpe.

“It can sort of dissolve and be absorbed beforehand (when blended with oil paint), but on the canvas, it has a different viscosity,” he said.

The end product is a black that isn’t uniform, but rather has its own deep and subtly shifting earth tones that draw attention to what tar really is: the decomposed gunk of ancient, organic matter. Volpe has applied this matter to his canvases with a heavy hand, leaving behind thick drips and gobs that serve as a dark, textured reminder of Western society’s excesses.

In keeping with this bleak view, Volpe’s paintings are moody and abstract; he wanted the series to be ambiguous and not directly illustrative of the book, and in this way he succeeds. In Moby-Dick, Ahab is driven to the point of insanity by the elusiveness of his adversary, and the whales that appear in Volpe’s paintings are rarely more than implications themselves. The exception might be Fluke, which — like the painting Ishmael peers at until it resembles a seascape — doesn’t seem at first to depict anything in particular. But after a moment or two, the giant mass of darkness takes on the shape of a tail, streaked with silvery drippings that behave like water, yet are unbroken from the silvery sky.

The works in “Loomings” often play with this line between what is ocean and what is not, such as T’Gallant Sails, whose stormy chaos Volpe has compounded with long, bold streaks that make it impossible to pinpoint the horizon. Where do waves become sky? How do we get our bearings in a universe with such chaotic boundaries? On the other hand, in Horizon Sails No. 2, the horizon is a stark, flat, uninterrupted line.

But even this clean line is of little use to a whaling vessel. An especially thick glob of tar lurks, vaguely whale-shaped, just under the hull of the ship and out of sight — grimly illustrating the blind spots of what Melville called the “all-grasping Western world.”

Christopher Volpe’s “Loomings” is up at the Taylor Gallery at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden through Oct. 14.

Of Note

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s third annual “en Plein Air Painting Festival” will begin 10 a.m. Saturday at the VINS Nature Center in Quechee. The weeklong festival, part of VINS’ 45th birthday celebration, will explore the Ottaquechee River watershed ecosystem through “in the open air” painting activities including an art competition, “quick paints,” guest artist workshops and an art sale and exhibition. For more information about the event schedule or to register for the art competition ($40 for adults, free for youth with adult), visit pleinairvinsvt.org.

The Arts Bus of Randolph is holding its very first Cow Plop fundraising contest, Saturday at Silloway Farm in Randolph Center. Participants can sign up for a grid square for $10, with the winning square being the one upon which Cindy the cow bestows a “plop” after she is released at 10 a.m. Beforehand, there will be a free cow-themed art activity on the Arts Bus starting at 9. The contest winner will receive half of all ticket revenue from the event, with the Arts Bus receiving the other half. To learn more or purchase a grid square, contact Heather DeLeone at developmentdirector@artsbusvt.org.

Openings and Receptions

In “Landscapes: Lyme and Tuscany,” an exhibition at the Betty Grant Gallery at the Converse Free Library in Lyme, Greg Gorman explores how humans have shaped their rural environments, both on his home turf and in the Italian countryside. There will be an artist’s reception Wednesday night from 6 to 7:30. Gorman will donate 10 percent of his art sales to the Friends of Lyme Library. The show is up through Dec. 29.

BigTown Gallery, in Rochester, Vt., shows “See the Woods for the Trees,” arboreal-themed paintings by part-time Vermont resident Joan Kahn, through Oct. 14.


AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. The encaustic paintings of Stephanie Gordon are on view in the Johnson Sisters Library on the second floor. The downstairs galleries exhibit the work of China Marks, Janet Hulings Bleicken and Leah Woods. All four shows are also on view through Oct. 6. Bleicken gives a talk Saturday at 3 p.m.

BigTown Gallery, Rochester, Vt. The paintings of Peter Brooke, “Land, Sea and Sky” are on view at the Rochester Gallery through Oct. 21; the wood work of Hugh Townley is on view through Dec. 2.

Center for the Arts, New London. Three exhibitions are on view in micro-galleries throughout town: “Kearsarge and Beyond,” a collection of photographs by New London resident Larry Harper, are on view at the Lake Sunapee Bank in New London. Enfield artist Amy Fortier exhibits “Faux-Zaic Designs” in the micro-gallery at Whipple Hall. Maria Blanck, a part-time resident of New London, and Yvonne Shukovsky, of Springfield, N.H., show their work in the exhibition “Potpourri” in the lobby of the New London Inn. All through Oct. 28.

Chelsea Public Library. “In The Garden,” a show of watercolor and mixed-media paintings by part-time Corinth resident Megan Murphy, runs through October.

Chew & Co. Design, Hanover. The water photographs of Rockland, Maine resident Joan Wright are on view through November.

Cider Hill Gardens and Gallery, Windsor. “Converging Viewpoints,” a show of work by Gary Milek and Charlie Shurcliff, runs through Oct. 28. Also on view at the gallery and gardens are sculpture, painting and installations by Steven Proctor, Herb Ferris, Gary Haven Smith and the Mythmakers.

Converse Free Library, Lyme. “Summer Time in Lyme,” an exhibition by members of the artists’ group Odanaksis, closes Saturday.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon. The hospital’s summer art exhibitions include the work of seven New England artists: Mark Bolton, Carol Keiser, Alison Palizzolo, Richard Perry, Sheryl Trainor and Robin Weisburger. It also features masks created by patients in the psychiatric unit as part of the project “The Faces of Mental Illness and Healing.” The exhibitions close Saturday.

Aidron Duckworth Museum, Meriden. Massachusetts artist Tracy Spadafora exhibits her paintings and assemblages in “Everything Underlying: Work from the DNA and Evolve Series.” Sculptures by Claremont artist Ernest Montenegro are on view, as is “Pride of Plainfield,” a community exhibition celebrating the town’s agricultural richness through photographs, articles and audio. All through Oct. 29.

Hall Art Foundation, Reading, Vt. There are three shows currently on view: “Hope and Hazard: A Comedy of Eros,” a show of more than 80 paintings on the subject of romantic and sexual love; “Ready. Fire! Aim,” a collaboration between the foundation and Burlington City Arts; and a solo show by David Shrigley. Through Nov. 26.

Howe Library, Hanover. On display in Ledyard Gallery is an exhibition of photographs by Max Fehr, of Berlin, Vt. Each photo is paired with one of Fehr’s poems. The show runs through Oct. 4.

Library Arts Center, Newport. The annual juried regional exhibition continues through Friday.

Long River Gallery and Gifts, White River Junction. “The True Beauty of Clay,” a show of sculpture, pottery and jewelry by artist-in-residence Anna Hranovska Vincelette, continues through Oct. 31.

Kilton Public Library, West Lebanon. A show by Susan Pearson, a pastel artist from Canaan, closes Saturday.

Norman Williams Public Library, Woodstock. An exhibit featuring diverse work from the craft group Women of Wonder (WOW) is on view through Saturday.

Norwich Public Library. An exhibition of photographs by Norwich resident Seth Goodwin, “Spaces and Places: Photographs from Near and Far,” is on view through Oct. 28.

Philip Read Memorial Library, Plainfield. “A World of Color,” a multimedia exhibit featuring work by 12 artists from Plainfield, Cornish and Windsor, is up through Oct. 14.

Royalton Memorial Library, South Royalton. Work by Lindsey Cole, a seventh-generation Vermonter and South Royalton native with a master’s degree in environmental law from Vermont Law School, is up through Friday.

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish. The Canadian sculptor Cal Lane’s show “It Was Never Like This” continues through October.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. Gallery owner Stacy Hopkins shows her jewelry, including recent work based on animal specimens from the collection of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

SculptureFest, Woodstock. The extension of SculptureFest is curated by Jay Mead and Meg Brazill, and features work by Mary Admasian, Ethan Ames, Barbara Bartlett, Brenna Colt, Charlet Davenport, Nera Granott Fox, Susie Gray, Rachel Gross, Margaret Jacobs, Marek Jacism, Jay Mead, Mary Mead, Murray Ngoima, Tracy Penfield, Otto Pierce, Cristina Salusti and Jeffrey Simpson.

Tunbridge Public Library. An exhibition of “Landscapes from Around New England” by artist Pat Little continues through Oct. 20.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, White River Junction. The prints of Nori Pepe are on view through Saturday.

White River Gallery at BALE, Royalton. “Patrick Dunfey: Large Works on Paper” closes Saturday.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.