Nuanced territory: J.M. Henry's lay of the land

J.M. Henry, Untitled.

To look at J.M. Henry, mild-mannered and polite in horn-rimmed glasses, you would have no clue the man was a fount of crass jokes. And watching him crack himself up with gross humor, you would never imagine he had the sensitivity to paint the evocative landscapes he currently has on exhibit at Angelo.

But Henry’s artistic approach reflects his multifaceted personality. Best known for his abstract paintings, Henry uses myriad techniques to achieve mesmerizing effects: layering color upon color, grinding them back with a sander, pushing paint around with a blow dryer, and using any number of other tricks (including traditional brushwork). What he achieves are images that appear to shift and move as they reveal subtle nuances.

The 12 mostly small oil-on-paper landscapes at Angelo seem like a departure for Henry into more referential territory, but, in fact, they are a continuum with his abstracts. As usual, Henry works within a square on the page, but rather than laying down a gestural mark as the focal point of each composition, he sets the horizon as his guide.

Viewers instinctively read “landscape,” prodded by Henry’s use of greens, ochres, and horizontal strokes in the lower sections of his paintings. In the upper areas, multi-directional brushwork and layers of blues and whites say “sky.” But it’s a deft illusion.  Close observation discloses Henry’s tree lines to be nothing more than green splotches, occasionally burbling with other colors, as specks of yellow and green fly through the “air” and red and mauve shoot across the “ground.” Henry has effectively adapted his arsenal of abstract techniques to persuade us we’re seeing landscapes.

But what delicious deception! A master of color, Henry uses a palette more varied than what at first meets the eye in creating these gauzy-edged scenes that seduce the viewer with the tranquility of summer days and nights. An almost unnoticeable dot of blue on the ground and a bit of pure yellow on the horizon in the 10” x 10” “Untitled” subtly contribute to the hypnotic effect of the painting.

In a personal favorite, “Nocturne I,” a swath of blue-green conveys the impression of an ocean illuminated on its surface by an unseen moon that casts a greenish-yellow light in a dark sky. Yet there are diagonal scratches here and notes of violet and coral there–all unexpected facets that make spending time with Henry and his paintings so rewarding.

J.M. Henry’s exhibition, “The Landscapes,” is on view through the end of April at Angelo. 220 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 971-9256.