The Island art community will witness a double debut this weekend — the opening of Lanny McDowell’s solo painting exhibition and the first solo art exhibition held at the Tashmoo Spring building.
The building, known as the Tisbury Waterworks, has undergone extensive renovations in the past few years. The town has begun renting it out as a venue for weddings, art exhibitions and a youth theater camp. Once used to house water pumps, it now has high ceilings, brick walls and tall windows.
“It’s almost an unknown venue,” Mr. McDowell said. “On the one hand, it’s an exceptionally cool place, but on the other, it doesn’t have a history.”
This Saturday, June 30, Mr. McDowell presents his new series of abstract works, as well as older works, which are mostly landscapes and seascapes. “There’s not going to be any riffraff filler,” he said. “They’ll all be paintings I like.”
Mr. McDowell’s most recent paintings, which will be the centerpiece of the showing, are 36 square inch canvases saturated with color. They combine vibrant geometric shapes with fantastical elements. The majority of the paintings are based on a series of subdivided squares set in a nine by nine grid. The first few paintings adhere to the “grid for its own sake, without being representational,” Mr. McDowell said. Later paintings, still defined by geometric forms, incorporate landscape, seascape, flora, fauna and constellations.
Faith and Apache Dusk communicate a clear Southwestern influence, while others, such as Rocky Shore and Jungle Beach capture the colors and design sensibilities of the Island.
The grid format is common to almost all his recent works, but beyond that, Mr. McDowell said, he paints more or less impulsively.
“I don’t set out with a clear plan, saying, ‘if I do this, then this will happen.’ It’s more instinctive than it is intellectual.”
In October of 2011 Mr. McDowell started this series from scratch.
“I didn’t have anybody I was studying,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at a particular artist or a particular show. I just bought a bunch of 36-inch square canvases, and started painting. There is no obvious precedent.”
Mr. McDowell is known on the Island for his avian photography, which he contributes weekly to the Vineyard Gazette. He doesn’t completely abandon photography when he starts to paint and even utilizes one medium to help the other. Often he keeps track of his process by photographing his paintings as they progress. At each stage, he uploads the photo to Photoshop, using the program’s tools to manipulate the colors.
“I use Photoshop to see where it could go next,” he said. “It’s a way for me to experiment with color choices. It’s very useful because you can also vary the intensity and the contrast and paint accordingly.”
Two of his recent paintings also incorporate birds, including Through the Temple Wall, in which a hole through a multicolored terra cotta tiled wall peers onto an oriole perched on a branch, framed in the center of the canvas.
Mr. McDowell studied art history in college, but the majority of his career has been as a finish carpenter on the Island.
“I’m the fussy guy who comes in at the end of a job,” he said.
He uses acrylics in his paintings because the colors are rich and the paint is easy to clean up.
“I never learned how to use any other medium,” he said. “I’m not classically trained. I want to keep my work original to me and not just represent something we know — what is pretty or comfortable or attractive.”
Mr. McDowell purposely selects square over rectangular canvases.
“I am trying to get away from the obvious landscape format,” he said. “I’m not just framing memories, I’m creating new opportunities, new worlds. A lot of art doesn’t do that.”
Mr. McDowell is taking a risk by showing his work in an unknown venue that lacks a curator, publicist and reputation. But he’s hopeful that he’s paving the way for more artists to do the same.
“It’s the start of what’s going to be a tradition,” he said. “A lot of artists are dying to have a space they can call their own, even just for a few days. It’s about having it look the way you want it to.”
The opening for Lanny McDowell’s exhibit is Saturday, June 30, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Tashmoo Spring Building, also known as the Tisbury Water Works. The exhibit continues through July 4. For details, call 508-696-8826 or visit lannymcdowellart.com/recentpaintings.