Dark and deep: But these woods are not lovely

There are few better visuals for the desolation of winter than skinny, twisting, and color-drained trunks of leaf-less trees. In the low-slung light of a winter afternoon, they’re dreary enough. At the season’s perpetually premature dusk, they’re much worse. For artist Jim Muehlemann, they’re a starting point.
In a blunt, almost violent style using a dark, muted, and limited palette, Muehlemann has created a series of oil paintings (untitled, though numbered sequentially) which hint very strongly at just this sort of treescape. It is very clear that he has these sort of images at the back of his brain, and they translate vividly to the canvas. 
But the paintings, to varying degrees, resist becoming completely and totally landscape, as if Muehlemann for some reason can’t quite give himself over to it. And in each painting from this series, “Blackwater,” Muehlemann seems to mark the degree and severity of his frustration at the time he painted it. 
And so in places he sets his carefully crafted and textured trees– which resemble alternately peeling bark and a long bone– a femur– buried and later disinterred– against what are essentially coarse, unadulterated stripes of paint, straight from the brush. Most of his trees grow from his murky, indistinctly rendered ground through the top of the canvass, although some simply end a good distance from the ground. 
Muehlemann leaves them hanging in the air. In some works, as in the particularly odd “Blackwater #11,” patches of incongruous seaweed green or what appear to be tiny moons or holes appear in random places on the canvas. There are also great slashes and dripping trails of paint which constantly threaten to obliterate his paintings’ dimensions and flatten the treescapes into abstraction. These elements worked into the dark and murky scenes give his paintings a relentlessly dour and gritty look as well as a palpable tension. And he does not give up on this for a square inch of canvas.

Jim Muehlemann’s “Blackwater,” an exhibit of moody, dark oil paintings, runs through February 14 at the Fayerweather Gallery on Rugby Road. 924-6123.

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