Christopher Volpe: Loomings

September 07 - October 31, 2018 Request information about this piece


Christopher Volpe’s tar paintings counterpoise beauty and distress. Uniting gestural abstraction with ambiguous, sometimes metaphoric or archetypal imagery, the paintings in his “Loomings” series are monochromatic seascapes and semi-abstract compositions executed in oil paint mixed with industrial tar and gold leaf, titled with references to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Bridged by the American demand for oil, first from the sea and now from the earth, the tar functions as primal material and industrial signifier, invoking our troubled relationship with our own history and the natural world. Volpe has received fellowships and grants from the St. Botoloph Club Foundation, MassMoCA/Assets for Artists, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the New Hampshire Humanities Council. He is a contributing writer to Art New England and holds a graduate degree in poetry from the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his family in rural New Hampshire.


Artist’s Statement

Loomings is a series of paintings combining oil paint, gold leaf, and industrial tar. Named after the first chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, each painting’s title references Melville’s apocalyptic vision of the American quest.

A fossil-fuel byproduct, the tar functions as a monochromatic signifier of industrialism, particularly reckless over-extraction. Recalling that whale oil was the first precursor to petroleum, the paintings’ deep metallic blacks, tintype grays and sepia tones invoke Melville’s novel as a cautionary, foundational myth for our own age of accelerating climate change and social disruption.

Beyond their political overtones, the paintings are intended to suggest broader themes related to the human condition. Referencing the ancient symbolism of the “journey by water” (central to Ryder’s visionary marines), as well as the metaphor of the “ship of state,” allows the work to avoid winding up with environmentalism as its ultimate statement. “Loomings” is rooted in what Clement Greenberg, writing about Jackson Pollock in 1943, called “that American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, Poe.”

They’re also about what Melville refers to as “the inscrutable,” that is, the problem of representing reality itself. For me these paintings have a kinship to themes in Melville in the confrontation of our own ignorance in an unknowable universe.

These works grapple explicitly with painting’s basic task of pushing the material to represent the immaterial. I hope they evoke what I’ve long felt is our culture’s haunted and complex relationship with nature and history by synthesizing contemporary visual practices and archetypal symbolism with resonant works of art and literature of the past.

Influences for the series include Melville, Turner, Ryder, Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and to a lesser extent Anselm Keifer.



Whale oil, America’s first dominant global industry, lit the Victorian world and fueled the onset of the industrial revolution – until it was replaced by fossil fuels following the discovery of petroleum in 1859.

The paintings take form in a process uniting gestural abstraction with ambiguous and more or less metaphoric imagery. Sometimes they start with smaller studies in charcoal and oil, but the scale of the work and the nature of the medium allows for a great deal of spontaneity and unconscious direction.

The tar just as easily assumes the characteristics of a solid as of a liquid; what glides or washes onto the canvas rapidly morphs into the inert; it pools, gushes, splatters, and drips like black blood, polluted water, as well as the crude oil it comes from.

Though stabilized with modern alkyd driers, tar’s longer drying phase still requires repeated applications and subtractions of both tar and paint, a rhythm that dictates the nature of the image. The atmosphere borders at times on a sort of toxic sublime, but it stops short of raw brutality, because the series aims to evoke our conflicted desire to belong to, or transcend, or at least make peace with nature, even while we’re hunting it down and destroying it to our own ruin.

After 150 additional years of oil-driven industrialization, humanity continues to exploit nature without adequately understanding either our history or our place within the wider compass of nature itself, tempting Ahab’s same dark gods, and flouting signs and portents of extinction.




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