The Quarry Series by Tom Cullins
“Endless Beginnings”, West Branch Gallery’s exhibition on non-representational art, is anchored by “The Quarry Series” by Tom Cullins in which the artist paints the jagged lines of the Barre granite quarry and the water’s reflection on it. These ten acrylic paintings on paper reveal a natural abstraction found in the man-shaped landscape and provide the viewer with a wonderful starting point for understanding and enjoying non-representational art.
For most of art history, artists sought to present an accurate, visual representation of the world. They studied perspective and composition with the intent of giving the viewer a precise rendering of what they were seeing. They made pictures when there was no photography and no other means of documenting what they saw. But as civilization progressed, our collective understanding of the world began to go beyond what we knew from basic sight. When we looked at the sky, we understood that we were looking at weather, atmosphere, the stars in space, light that traveled for millennia to reach us. We understood that the ocean wasn’t simply water, but a world unto itself, with its own geography and ecosystem and meteorology. Even something as simple as the sight of a bowl of fruit on a table became a complex assortment of light and chemistry, a mass of atoms each with their own history, congressing in a particular moment in time, that once past, would never be that moment again. Humanity had grown up. We became sophisticated and our understanding of the world became complex. Art sought ways to reflect new realities.
J.M.W. Turner’s 19th-century paintings of sublime, awe-inspiring ships at sea are some of the earliest examples of an artist using abstraction to express the emotional qualities of a scene. Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth(1842) is a swirl of browns, grays, and blues with only a faint impression of a ship’s mast. The painting captures the intensity of a ship in violent weather just outside the safety of its harbor. Turner privileged the emotional veracity of the moment over the visual truth of the scene and, in doing so, unleashed the power of abstraction.
Artists began to reshape the natural world and to find new ways of expressing what they understood themselves to be seeing and experiencing. Abstraction, which in a visual art context could be defined as the act of portraying what is experienced rather than what is seen, was an essential part of art’s step into modernity. Abstraction gives the artist additional tools for communicating to modern viewers. It provides the means for making pictures that are relevant to people who understand the world to be much more complex than what they see with their eyes.
But really, artists were always performing small acts of abstraction. To render a three-dimensional world as a two-dimensional picture, for example, one must translate shape and depth into lines and shading while maintaining perspective. One only has to look closely at a realistic painting to see that the image is nothing more than a collection of well-placed brush strokes.
In “The Quarry Series”, Cullins calls our attention to the beautiful, tonal, and rhythmic patterns of a granite quarry. Technically, these are realistic paintings. Note, for example, the leafless tree in the top right corner of Barre Quarry #4 and the small bush that is growing along the ledge. A few inches below the tree, one can see its reflection on the water. This visual play repeats itself in Barre Quarry #8, where the birch trees are only seen in a reflection on the quarry’s water. InBarre Quarry #1, Cullins paints the pattern of lines drawn by quarry men who extracted the stone. Collectively, these paintings give the viewer a perspective on the rich tones and geometric beauty that is found in a vacant quarry. They are quiet, peaceful, and reflective.
Cullins achieves this effect through tight composition which focuses the viewer on particular visual elements in the scene and calls their attention to how those elements are interacting with each other. Abandoned quarries are dangerous places, remnants of industrial extraction that are filled with (sometimes polluted) groundwater and old rusting equipment. But in rendering them in this manner, Cullins is asking us to see the beauty of these places and to witness the natural world taking back the land.
One of the many functions of art is to reflect the world back to us, to give us a picture of the world in which we live. By rendering this natural abstraction, Cullins shows us a neglected corner of our world and asks us to celebrate it.