A few years ago, a book titled Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers fell into the hands of Anne Neely, who maintains a studio in Washington County, Maine during the summer. There she read about the Mopang Aquifer, a subterranean water supply in Washington County that came under threat in the late 1980s when land above became the proposed site of an ash dump. Locals successfully defended the aquifer, but many other stories collected by de Villiers didn’t end as happily.
The book prompted Neely to contemplate water, below the earth and above. Her complex, diagrammatic, patchwork abstractions went from tall to wide. The horizon line, often implicit in her work, became recognizable as a geographic distance.
Neely’s adoption of the landscape motif clarified her paintings. She has an extraordinary appetite for details, and details can overwhelm a composition with clutter. Placing sky above and earth below forced her myriad little shapes into one or the other, and unified them.
Neely was ideally suited to the problem of painting groundwater, which one can only represent in a schematic. Her multicolored dots and dashes, her painted and scratched capillaries, and the translucent viscosity of her oils provided a complete vocabulary of analogues. Mopang (2010) seems to depict a cross-section of the planet’s crust. A thin line of distant hills confines a sky of lime and azure to the top fifth of the canvas. Earth lies beneath it in dirt-brown and sand-beige strata .
Towards the bottom, the brown drips over a background of indigo and lapis – water, presumably, but it is the earth that is liquid. There’s a particular grid of rounded rectangles that you get when you allow fluid paint to drip in one direction for a while, then turn the canvas sideways. The paint gathers at unpredictable points along the line of the drip, falls orthogonally, then flows into neighboring drips. Neely has executed this to lovely effect along the bottom quarter of Mopang, and filled the rectangles in with ocher, violet, and earth green. The same colors reappear as hundreds of particles dotting the middle swath of the painting. It is as if the State of Maine’s Bureau of Land & Water Quality had hired Gustav Klimt as a geological surveyor.
Kettle Hole (2010-11) could be a forest under a night sky beyond a field of ice, or a bed of lake flora over another bed of limestone. Packets of color, formed by the knifing of white onto a fiendishly complicated background, cross the chilly scene. They look like coded messages, parcels en route to points east and west of the painting. The speeding, abstracted traffic brings Julie Mehretu to mind, though Neely does a more convincing job cohering the flurry of marks into a painting.
There’s a three-axis consideration to her use of materials that brings about this coherence. One runs from thin paint to thick, one runs from dry application to wet, and one runs from lean to fat, understood in the painterly way. (The addition of oil medium is fatter.) Neely exploits the whole range, resulting a technical dimensionality that one can pore over with great pleasure. Drips, glazes, impastos, and scrapes come together like elaborate embroidery.
Neely never allows the sentiment behind a work to turn into sentiment in the work. She has felt the problem with great depth, yet at no expense to her artistry. Thus she can produce paintings like Tidal (2010), a fiery Divisionist landscape under a sweeping orange sky. Its summery dots could be joyful. Its blue mass in the distance could be a scorched, disappearing lake. The painting understates the message, keeping within the borders of art, where it excels.