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Abstraction Based on Observation

Abstraction Based on Observation
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Jon Imber spends part of the year in the city and part of the year in a small coastal village, and his art reflects this movement. Imber moves between abstraction and representation about as easily and seamlessly as any painter I know.

Jon Imber burst on the Boston art scene in the late 1970s after having graduated from Boston University where he studied with the hugely influential painter Philip Guston. His initial success was based on powerful figurative paintings of a philosophical and allegorical nature. Jon Imber: New Paintings, his current (through January 10) exhibition at Nielsen Gallery in Boston, features a pair of self-portraits that, though stylistically much freer and brushier than his early work, speak to his figurative roots, but the majority of the new paintings are painterly abstractions based on observation.

Imber moves seasonally from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Stonington on Deer Isle in Maine, where his wife, painter Jill Hoy, maintains a popular art gallery. There is an overpowering sense of place on the coast of Maine, a natural and physical presence that mitigates toward the empirical in art. During the summer, Imber paints the Deer Isle environs in a loose, plein air style of realism. In the winter, he works indoors in the city and his paintings tend to become more abstract. Abstraction is an urban impulse, yet Imber’s abstractions are clearly based on things he has seen. As often as not, his winter abstractions reflect summery phenomena.

A generous painter, Imber provides not only recognizable elements as an entree into his non-representational paintings but also titles, such as “Tiger Lily and Sunflower,” “Blueberries and Cream,” “Nasturtium,” “Sail,” and “Stonington Harbor,” that help viewers orient themselves upon the active surfaces of his oils on canvas and board. It is the recollection of things seen he is painting, but the paintings themselves are as much about the act of painting as about natural observation.

Jon Imber is a great admirer of the abstract paintings of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, Arshile Gorky, and his mentor Guston, each of whom in his own way arrived at abstraction through visual referents, yet, in the degree to which Imber’s own abstractions absorb and embody external Maine realities, his art is closer in look and feel to that of painters John Walker and the late William Keinbusch, two other painters who split their time between the city and the coast of Maine.

New Paintings could easily have included new Imber landscapes, yet, this being a winter show, Nielsen Gallery seems to have chosen to show only winter paintings. Had the exhibition included a few landscapes as points of reference, it might have given viewers a better idea of, as Imber writes, “how I arrived where I am.” Where he is is “pushed to the brink of abstraction,” clinging to the memory of natural beauty while creating a beauty all his own.

Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St. Boston MA, 617-266-4835.

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Updated Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

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