Water Stories | New England Home

Anne Neely
Anne Neely

Water Stories by Louis Postel for New England Home

 Anne Neely’s world charged with beauty and menace premiers in July 2014 at Boston’s Museum of Science

Remember that comical falling-out between Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections? This was back in 2001. Franzen had worried publically that he was afraid only women and not men would buy his book if they saw Oprah’s priceless stamp of approval on the cover of his new book. This resulted in his being famously disinvited to appear on Oprah.

Ten years later, Franzen wrote an insightful essay on the Boston-based Painter, Anne Neely, whose paintings represented the first he’d ever acquired by a stranger. He’s quick to dispel any typecasting about her as an environmental activist first and a painter second, as he was to dispel any notions about himself as a “women’s writer.”

If Anne Neely’s visual vocabulary includes polluted aquifers and rivers, industrial waste, and oil spills in her semi-abstracts canvasses, we need to take care not to marginalize her as some sort of eco-propagandist.

Indeed, the genius of Neely’s work, Franzen wrote, is to pulls viewers in with their constant state of “happening”, noting how their visual “visual rhythms reinforce this flickering dynamic, this never-just-one thing effect.”


Beneath, oil on linen, by Anne Neely
Beneath, oil on linen, by Anne Neely

Consider, for example, Neely’s 60” x  80” oil on linen, entitled “Beneath” which will be part of an exhibit running from this July to January the Museum of Science: Anne Neely Water Stories: Conversations in Paint and Sound (with sound artist Halsey Burgund.) “Beneath” seduces us and enchants us with the visual rhythms Franzen admires, these parading dots and rectangles, circles and squares  — but there’s a shadow, a foreboding, which is true for every painting in the show.


In “Beneath” we wander a golden field, a Van Gogh in rich vibrancy, but beneath that, down in the lower third of the canvas there’s a new, flat perspective in the style of Cezanne. There Neely’s placed a cutaway to a hidden aquifer. And in those bluish paint strokes something troubles the sight,  floating blots of oil or other possible form of pollution, itself edged by a reflection of the trees in the upper third, but now oddly tormented in shape. In a second canvas called “Peak” a thinly painted, (read vulnerable) town flickering in the twilight nestles along eggplant-colored, spotty water in the foreground. How safe are we, one might ask. Neely backs off from providing an answer, which leaves plenty of space for us to invent our own stories.


“I am a painter first, not a politician,” said Neely in her studio on Albany Street. “But if in the process of creating these paintings a story is revealed about concern for water, its’ peril or preciousness, or the impending disappearance of beauty in our blindness towards the environment, then I have been a vehicle for that message.”. “Peak and “Beneath” and the rest of her larger than life canvases are being readied for shipment to the Museum of Science. Like super-nova, they radiate an energy, a wave pulse or particle shower that transforms and absorbs visitors. “I can’t wait to see them at a greater distance,” says Neely. “This space is so small.”


Neely arrived in Boston in 1974 from Connecticut with her husband. She soon found a job that turned into long labor of love teaching art at Milton Academy. Only recently did she retire to devote herself to painting full time.  Though she began her career as a landscape painter, Neely’s interior landscape — her spirit, if you will — began weaving itself into her work most prominently after 9/11. “I felt I couldn’t go out in the landscape full of the same kind of innocence, that that innocence had been broken. I felt compelled inward, wanting to paint from a place of gratitude and meaning, not strictly from observation,” she said.


Just as designers use layering to enchant us from room to room, window to window where the lines of between interior and exterior are blurred. The layering welcomes us and invites us to move through the work, even in the stillest of forms, juxtaposing thinly poured paint, thick paint, parading rectangles, earth, gravel, sand, aquifers, rivers, and distant towns.


Susan Stoops, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Worcester Art Museum, describes Neely’s layering effects well.


“ ‘Beneath’” said Stoops, “is a great example of the way Anne creates these strata of experiences of the landscape — its multiple layers as she applies pigment, devoting at least part of the image to something we wouldn’t necessarily see, an entire universe out of details, a cluster of marks. In that sense, we experience her work as having as a much to do about the paint as the subject itself.”


Drawing an additional parallel to design and architecture, Stoops pointed out “how Neely uses her brush strokes as building blocks of paint, arranging them in such a way as to allow  viewers the freedom to move through space, to go through a process of self-discovery without being manipulated.”


In January, Neely’s Water Stories will to go on exhibit at her gallery in New York, the Kathryn Markel Gallery where for about $25,000 each, with smaller canvases of 11” x 14”’s in the $4,000 range. Large or small, Neely’s energy is so “happening” that one keeps imagining what’s transpiring far beyond the edges of her canvases. That’s why Neely suggested that her paintings should be left unframed, allowing even a smaller piece to carry a large room..


Why, in any case, would we ever want to interfere with the flow of her work, that unclassifiable ‘flickering dynamic’ which is the source of life itself?