When you think about landscape, it's hard to get past the Impressionists. This has been true for more than a century, ever since Manet, Monet, Pissarro and the rest of the gang who showed at the Salons des Refusés in the 1870s and 1880s reinvented representation with their small, luminous, rough-hewn canvases. In the 20th century, the Impressionists' optical approach to color, embrace of plein-air technique and rejection of traditional finish would be embraced around the world.
Bobby Wright's paintings of Humboldt Bay owe something to an older tradition: the detail-oriented, information-rich approach associated with premodern painting from northern Europe, especially Flanders. Masters in this tradition did not labor over light effects or seek to render the fleeting instant of lived experience, Impressionist-style. Instead they packed their panels full of detail, making objects and places appear hyper-real. Viewers of works by Van Eyck or Van der Weyden could zoom in on even the humblest objects in a painted interior to appreciate velvet's nap, the wood grain on a table or the coarse weave of a maidservant's apron.
Wright's paintings of Humboldt Bay — on view this Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Humboldt Bay Social Club — are not Flemish masterworks but they do reveal similar descriptive inclinations. In terms of the way they represent the world, they are more Flemish than French — oriented more toward tactility than toward optics, which makes them engaging outliers in these plein-air intensive parts.
Wright grew up around Los Angeles but he's been living here for 20 years — much of that time in Manila, where he lives and paints on a sandy peninsula between the ocean and Humboldt Bay. The bay is always in eye- and ear-shot — so close, he says, "I can see it from my bedroom windows."
The 20 works on view are all the same size (9 by 12 inches), painted with oil on panel. This uniform format accentuates their role as units in a series, like visual entries in a journal or daybook. The frames, which Wright fabricated, make use of aged redwood, pine and cedar salvaged from area demolition projects.
Everything was made during a two-month period Wright spent at the Humboldt Bay Social Club earlier this year as its inaugural artist-in-residence. Seeing the paintings in this lofty oceanside exhibition space — a decommissioned airplane hangar — yields fun opportunities for comparison between interior and exterior, painted and nonpainted views.
Humboldt Bay appears in nearly every panel. Sometimes it's a blue expanse, sometimes a mirrored plane, sometimes a mudflat between two tides. Bridges, railroad tracks and culverts cross this shape-shifting field. Strange things wash up at the water's edge. Paint piles up in areas where the painter's attention seems to have been riveted — there's normally at least one of these foci per painting, sometimes more. Paint handling quickens and intensifies around particular objects: in the gnomic form of a lone, wind-battered Monterey cypress or in the dark lid of cumulus cloud that covers the bay all summer. Bits of post-industrial waste become conduits for expression. A pickup truck rusting in the weeds at the water's edge, worked and reworked days or weeks after the composition's initial statement, acquires surprising gravitas. The yawning, heavily worked mouth of a drainage pipe exerts a visually magnetic, quasi-gravitational force that makes the rest of the composition, unmoored by comparison, appear to drain away.
"I'm part illustrator, not a landscape purist," Wright told me. His project documents how ordinary, even ugly objects seen along an everyday commute can take on startling weight when seen in a certain light or frame of mind. In his paintings, impasto accumulation — layer upon layer of paint — is oftentimes the key that unlocks an ordinary object's expressive power.
He offers an example: barnacles, specifically the ones encrusting the rotting piers that emerge in sequence around the bay's edge at low tide. Sometimes, for him, getting the barnacles right is essential. However, "it's impossible to do this while the paint is wet." In a situation like this Wright will revisit the barnacles in the studio once the initial oil sketch has dried, sometimes reworking them over multiple sessions until they acquire a visual heft that dovetails with his recollection.
"It's about information," the artist told me. "What's out there in the landscape? The landscape is giving you information. How much are you ready for? How much can you handle? The information I include is the stuff that excites me, interests me — sometimes range of depth, or juxtaposition of colors. I would never paint from a photograph."
Wright looks at the bay every day while he's driving to work and back, "noticing the colors and the light." He notes that it's always a work in progress: constantly in flux, shaped by the ceaseless tides. "There's so much water coming in and out. The bay is so pristine from having those billions of gallons flushed each day. It's like a nursery for everything in the ocean." The tide's moon-driven rhythms cut across the more predictable rhythms of the daily commute, so that those mudflats "never look the same twice." Viewed attentively on a regular basis, patterns emerge.
Wright cherishes one especially serendipitous fortune from a long-gone cookie: "'Enlightenment is finding the magic in the everyday.' That's what I try to do." His landscapes speak to this commitment, capturing not just the fugitive color and sparkle but also something of the larger experience of time surrounding the body of water he refers to as "my life's backdrop."
Bobby Wright's paintings of Humboldt Bay will be on view for one day only at the Humboldt Bay Social Club on Sunday, Dec. 8, starting at 2 p.m.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata. She prefers she/her.