Evolving with the Landscape - Andrew Haines's Paintings of Forest Hills

 

            Andrew Haines moved to the Forest Hills neighborhood at the southern edge of Jamaica Plain just as the old viaduct and elevated railroad station were coming down.  Overpass, Forest Hills (1987), one of his paintings from that period, captures the gritty, genial chaos of the area.  Into a lively, compressed space, he shoehorns trolley tracks, cars, a scrap of sidewalk, a bus plunging downhill at an alarming angle, and an Orange Line train rumbling by.  Between the train and the Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass at the top is a square of sunlight that illuminates the 19th-century houses lining Washington Street, the eastern border of the residential neighborhood beyond. 

            In the thirty years since Overpass, Forest Hills, Haines’s style and practice have changed significantly, but his commitment to the urban landscape has not.  Initially he worked in oil on canvas, painting from life and out of doors.  Now he uses acrylic paints and works on smooth panels or on brilliant white clay-coated paper as often as on canvas.  Always a representational artist, he now paints in his studio, relying on his own small photographs and drawings made on the scene to provide compositional outlines and reminders of detail.  His color has become richer, his rendering of light and shadow crisper, his paint handling more meticulous.  And although he has continued to focus on prosaic, marginal corners of the city, urban bustle has given way to evocative silence.

            Much in Haines’s neighborhood has changed as well.  The unlovely Casey Overpass, built in the 1950s to carry the Arborway over Washington Street (and effectively cutting off Forest Hills from the rest of Jamaica Plain), was judged unsound in 2010 and demolished in 2015.  The area beneath it has been redesigned and will eventually be a friendlier, greener space.  In response to these developments, in about 2015 Haines embarked on the “Forest Hills Project,” an ongoing series of paintings depicting the Casey Overpass and a few streets—Orchard Hill, Tower, Woodlawn, South, Morton—as seen from it. 

            In several of the paintings, Haines pairs views of the Overpass with natural elements that appear as survivors, like the neighborhood itself.  In White Pine and the Casey Overpass, he silhouettes the spindly limbs of two trees against a snowy sky; they stand before the overpass like sentinels, mute and somehow heroic.  In Casey Overpass and Stump, he links the rather forbidding rust-colored towers  that abut the highway at the horizon with a tree stump in the foreground.  The regrowth springing from that seemingly dead stump augurs a return to a greener landscape.

            In other works, Haines pays tribute to the ordinary, undistinguished architecture of the neighborhood.  Standing on the Overpass, he saw triple-deckers, low-rise commercial buildings, and old clapboard houses on narrow lots marching up the streets leading to the back of Forest Hills Cemetery.  The neighborhood is dense and Forest Hills Station (the Orange Line terminus as well as a commuter rail stop and a bus hub) is constantly busy.  Haines’s views of these areas are nonetheless devoid of figures and moving vehicles—in a suite of more than 25 paintings, there are only one or two busses, a few cars at a snowy stoplight, and a ghostly bicycle rider.  Yet his paintings are not static.  They are animated by long shadows stretching across empty streets and by dazzling, Hopperesque light striking the facades of buildings.

            Haines’s paintings are full of detail.  This is true even of the small, loosely brushed sketches on paper, which he sometimes paints three or four to a sheet.  His focus becomes sharper in the larger paintings. (These are seldom truly large.  Although his views are often panoramic, Haines’s precise touch gives his paintings a wonderful miniaturistic quality.)  The specificity of the larger works alludes, to some degree, to their photographic beginnings, yet Haines manages to carry over from the sketches a freer, more abstract paint handing.  This is especially apparent in his skies (e.g. South Street Looking North), which often take up half the composition.  While functioning descriptively, these passages also have a life of their own.  They are not heavily impastoed; rather, they are smooth, thin, layers of paint that bring to mind old plaster walls, patches of which have deteriorated and crumbled away, revealing areas of different color beneath.

            By juxtaposing meticulously described buildings and perspectivally rigorous renderings of streetscapes with areas of flat, patchy, handsome brushwork, Haines calls attention to the tension between creating a credible pictorial illusion and respecting (and enjoying) the materiality of paint.  This tension is something Haines’s work shares with that of two otherwise very different, representational artists he admires:  Thomas Eakins, master realist of the late 19th century, and Gerhard Richter, whose work of the last forty years is by turns descriptive and abstract.  For those painters, as for Haines, the interaction of photographic qualities with the physicality of pigment is a key component of their practice.

            Lately, Haines has been experimenting with new kinds of framing devices that also draw attention to the process of creating a picture, and to the ironic opposition between illusionism and the materiality of paint.  In several paintings in the Forest Hills Project (e.g., South Street Looking North), Haines surrounds his image with a blue border that imitates the masking tape artists often used to mark off compositions in progress.  This trompe l’oeil tape contains and sharpens the view.  In other works (Forest Hills I, II, and III), in which he combines several sketches on one sheet, the faux tape separates one image from another.  Yet Haines often paints over his blue borders, so that the image encroaches on those dividers and occasionally on a neighboring picture, reminding us again that what we’re seeing is paint.

            Several of the Forest Hills paintings have an arched top.  In some of these (e.g., South Street Looking Northeast from the Bridge), Haines indicates the arch with a simple drawn line that is not quite synonymous with the edge of the painting.  In others, he fills the areas outside the arch with dark paint and reinforces the arched opening with his scruffy, tape-imitating, blue outline.  The shape of these images is a nod to 19th-century arched-top landscape paintings, as well as to stereographs and other forms of early photography—a connection that gives Haines’s paintings a nostalgic quality deliberately at odds with his anti-picturesque subject matter.  The arched top sharpens the power of the visual illusion, the success of the picture as a “window onto the world” that representational paintings characteristically aspire to.  At the same time—as in these paintings' 19th-century antecedents—the arch not only gathers in a broad view, but also presents a rich surface that humanizes the expanse, makes it intimate.

            The blue framing lines that Haines uses to create his internal borders are part of a painter’s working process that—like perspective grids or compositional outlines drawn onto the canvas—are usually covered over or removed at the end.  By leaving them visible, Haines reminds us that painting is not just a replication of reality but a demanding physical and intellectual process.  His trompe l’oeil taped boundaries, blurred and overruled by paint, and his eloquently brushed streets and skies provide a personal counterpoint to the self-effacing, mundane subjects he paints.

            The urban landscapes that make up the Forest Hills Project are also history paintings of a sort, reminders of the changing human imprint on the area.  The Casey Overpass is now gone, and none of Haines’s vistas are available anymore.  His paintings are not so much documents as they are memories, commemorating a nondescript—but in Haines’s handling, quietly compelling—present that has suddenly become the past.  The removal of the Casey Overpass reintegrates Haines’s Forest Hills neighborhood, long isolated, with the rest of the city.  A beautification project has begun:  hundreds of trees will be planted and the resulting green space will convert a dreary subway station into a linchpin of the Emerald Necklace, connecting the Arnold Arboretum with Franklin Park.  Haines has described Forest Hills as “a landscape most people tried to pass through as quickly as possible.”  The new construction will change that.  Andrew Haines’s paintings remind us of the stalwart dignity of what has always been there, the tenacity and poetry of the everyday.

Carol Troyen,  Kristen and Roger Servison Curator Emerita of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston