In high school and college classrooms, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick, or, the Whale” is commonly used to illustrate Romantic and Naturalist themes. While it’s because of Keats that I picture Romanticism as a gasping tendon writhing under the holiness of the heart’s affections, my image of Naturalism—an ocean wave indifferently carrying us, screaming, an unsafe distance from shore—may be thanks to Melville.
“Loomings,” Christopher Volpe’s exhibition named for the novel’s first chapter, cunningly incorporates the novel just enough to pack a bigger cultural punch to his elegantly grimy nautical paintings. Reading the book is not a prerequisite for seeing the show, now at Matter & Light Fine Art in Boston through October 31, but I was happy that I re-read at least the first chapter to orient myself to these waters.
“Moby-Dick-themed art show” is not the seaside-gift-shop image I want to conjure in this description, and one that Volpe has tacitly avoided. The monochromatic paintings use varying levels of tar and white oil paint to give an ashy dominance to ships that are, in many cases, shadowy wisps almost hidden in larger, more foreboding shrouds of darkness. Like the novel, they evoke what was in 1851 and still is quintessentially American spleen—domineering motion with a ship-adrift metaphor to match.
The most direct ties to the book are perhaps best encapsulated in the painting called “Surely all this is not without meaning.” At first glance, we are peering over a bright white ledge into an ominous but nondescript abyss, its title—quoted from the “Loomings” chapter—giving the void a stark jolt of panic. Surely, there must be a point to this unease, this unrelenting darkness. At first, I took the white shape to be the last of a sunlit ocean shelf, the dropoff that always comes so unexpectedly when wading. But it could also be the lower lip of the whale itself, the void a wide mouth of mortality.
But, this is the only hint of a whale, or any other breathing creature, in the entire show—a good thing, because Volpe’s ships and the hazy light they traverse are the real stars. Beyond material implications and Melville’s text, the ship is an always-timely metaphor for the self—or one’s nation. By employing the All-American novel that details one of the country’s dawning industries—whale oil—Volpe envisions a “ship of state” plowing into a dirty future as much as anything else.
Tar is a fascinating material here. I expected more of a texture to it, but it blends articulately with the oil paint, accommodating Volpe’s relatively small brush strokes. His use of it skips over a sensical but what would be overly simple message of environmentalism—the absence of animals and human figures, and the metaphor-heavy presence of ships, helps orient the viewer in a philosophical space. The tar primarily represents the industrial byproduct brought on by industrialization—not the primordial ooze in which life ends and is preserved.
Tar as a force of nature, as encompassing as the damp sea air, adds another layer to the choice. What is being preserved here? A ship adrift, battered into a floating fossil—does it preserve man’s addiction to self-destruction?
One piece in particular, “Acushnet,” is a conscious preservation of Melville’s literary accomplishments, named for the whaling vessel Melville boarded at age 21 to try his hand as a sailor. That ship towers over the writer’s entire legacy, as that first voyage set his five years of sailing into motion, and the industry-specific Moby Dick is now his most-revered work. Volpe uses only tar for this piece, while the bulk of the images use varying degrees of tar and oil paint. On a technical level, the manipulation of the tar to create varying layers is impressive. The piece is at once a belch of smoke and elegant, billowing sails.
In a statement, Volpe expresses that he wishes to confront “oil-driven industrialization” and how “humanity continues to exploit nature.” To this point, using ships as stand-ins for human figures in the work is effective. We are lumbering objects, only animated and given purpose by the wind and water around us.
The complete series actually includes a few more colorful pieces, with some blue skies and gold leaf brightening up the scenes, but I think it’s good that Matter and Light stuck with a more continuous tone for this exhibition. Consider it a creaky launch into another New England winter. I recommend revisiting at least the first chapter of the novel to get in the mood, but it’s hardly required. The leaves may only just be changing, but at Matter & Light, a dank, windswept winter is already lapping at the shore.