Whitney Cleary Embraces the Subjective


“Heavy Skies,” 10 x 8 in., oil on wood, by Whitney Cleary

In the artist’s subdued oils, familiarity and humanity color the landscape.

When viewers first encounter Whitney Cleary’s washy, atmospheric landscapes, they may be transported to a recognizable cove of sand, or a tell-tale patch of trees from a frequented walking trail. The oils on canvas and wood, with their sober palettes and evident brush strokes, have a familiarity, an intimacy about them — anyone who is acquainted with the Vineyard could point out each painting’s suspected location on a map. Except they would be mistaken. Cleary’s settings are not any more photorealistic than her style. But that familiarity? Those emotional associations? Those are very real. And that’s the whole point.

“I like my work to be subjective,” Cleary told me in a phone call from her West Tisbury home. “Everyone’s got an idea of where it’s from, but I don’t want it to be a pinpoint. I’d rather it be more vague so people can put their own memories into the painting.”

Cleary does keep a stockpile of photos for times when she’s “feeling stuck,” but most of her scenes are an amalgamation of memories, collected from long, meditative walks on the Island’s trails and beaches.

“I have painted from photographs, but that doesn’t have as much satisfaction, because you know where it’s going,” Cleary said. “The way I paint is more like a discovery; I like it to take you someplace completely new.”

Cleary’s paintings refreshingly shrug off the tradition of the “inviting” Martha’s Vineyard moment, the sunshine and vibrant colors of tourism brochures. The restrained color schemes, the overcast skies, the subtle, even light that falls across the textured wood are reminiscent of another side of the Vineyard — one that doesn’t usually cut the mustard for postcards, but is nonetheless relatable.

“They’re definitely moody, melancholy,” Cleary said. “I start with my palette. I want all the colors to be clinging to the same feeling, which tends to be pretty gloomy.” Cleary doesn’t deny that these moods may be echoes of her own headspace. “All painting is very personal,” she said, “but they’re all coming from my brain and I think it’s just a reflection, an outpouring.”

That’s not to say Cleary’s paintings are one-sided, or anchored in pathos. Many of her scenes offer a suggestion of blue sky, a resolute beam of light poised to dissipate the fog. It’s a glimmer of hope that makes our indulgence in melancholy all the more enticing. “Having that limited palette is the way I can get to some of these moods,” Cleary said. “Then they can just speak for themselves. I don’t want it to be trying too hard.”

“Warm Woods,”
10 x 8 in., oil on canvas, by Whitney Cleary

In this regard, Cleary’s process is fairly free-flowing. “Starting a painting is my favorite part,” she said. “My first goal is just to get the paint on the canvas. From there I subtract, I mold it into what I’m seeing it come into. I feel like my paintings might be more like sculptures in that way.”

The maturity of Cleary’s style, and the thoughtfulness with which she regards her work, seem to indicate a long-in-the-tooth artist. But Cleary has never formally studied art. She was an English major and a poet before she moved to the Vineyard from western Massachusetts. In fact, she began teaching herself to paint only about five years ago.

Cleary comes from an artistic family, and she’s bolstered her skills (and her trove of supplies) with the support of her mother, a retired art teacher. But mostly, Cleary finds her lack of a formal background freeing. “I’m usually a rule-follower, so not knowing all the rules allows me to bend them,” she said. “Artists are told you can’t use black because black doesn’t exist in nature. But for me, if I feel like using black, I use black.”

The informality has also relaxed the pressure to make the stereotype of “the artist” part of her identity. Cleary is free to interact authentically with her work, and the result is clearly to the benefit of the viewer. Contemplating her paintings, processing her moods, projecting your own memories onto her landscapes feels like camaraderie, a secret passed between friends.

“It’s something I think about a lot,” Cleary said. “You’re never just seeing a piece of art through your own eyes, you’re seeing it through the artist’s eyes too.”

“A Clearing,” 12 x 12 in., oil on wood panel, by Whitney Cleary

For Cleary, most paintings are cathartic. She can identify each one as the result of a hard conversation, or the follow-up to a particularly disappointing day. “I definitely find release through them,” she said. But for this same reason, Cleary can never predict the effect of the painting on the viewer. “It’s strange, I’m never seeing my own work for the first time, because I’ve seen it through the whole process, through every layer of paint,” she said. “So of course it’s going to be different for the viewer.”

Subjectivity is inevitable in art of any medium. It can be troubling at times. It raises difficult questions about quality, and truth, and our sometimes tragic inability to relate to one another. But Cleary embraces the immanence of subjectivity, and she plays it up with grace.

“I want things to be ambiguous,” Cleary said. It’s why you’ll never pinpoint that trail, why you can’t quite trace the edge of her depictions of dune grass. It’s why the elusive horizon between monochromatic water and sky makes you a bit uncomfortable. Cleary is intentionally throwing us off balance, distorting our bearings.

“It’s expected but unexpected, it works but it doesn’t work, it’s surprising and reminiscent of the sometimes awkward ways in which we relate to one another,” she said.

It’s the awkwardness that pulls you in. It captures your attention for just long enough to realize that its grasp is in some ways a release: a liberation from the cloying weight of the mundane. And landscapes — especially landscapes of a place you know well — can be mundane.

“Even though I keep evolving, it’s still the same composition, the same image,” Cleary said. “Sometimes I think ‘I’m repeating the same thing over and over again…is this what a crazy person does?’” But there’s always room for variation. If Cleary’s palettes are any indicator, we come to understand that even the same color comes in infinite shades.

“Path,” 24 x 12 in., oil on wood panel, by Whitney Cleary

“I go for a walk almost every day, sometimes on the same trail. But it’s always different depending on your mood, or what the weather’s doing, or what kind of music you’re listening to, or what book you’ve been reading,” Cleary said. “That’s what I’m trying to portray in the paintings. This is just one single moment. There can be a million similar moments, but they’re all different.”

I ask Cleary about variations in our eyes’ photoreceptors, the concept that one individual’s perception of “blue” might be entirely different from another’s. Is it possible that, by limiting her color palette, she is further expanding the scope of subjectivity? How do we even begin to talk about art, when our viewing of it is subjective at a physiological level? Even in a time of isolation, the question feels pointedly lonely.

“That used to drive me crazy when I was a kid,” Cleary says. “But in my work I go more for tones. The colors are relative to one another and the environment. I like to think that even if it were in black and white, the relationship between the colors would still exist.”

Of course Cleary’s speaking literally about her craft, but I wonder if a bit of poetry still stains her tongue. Because while countless philosophers and art critics have wrestled with the concept of subjectivity for centuries, the underlying conundrum is that our own individuality only exists as it relates to other people. So even if we fail to see the same location in Cleary’s art, even if we fail to see the same blue, perhaps we can agree that we’re just circling between two sides of the same coin. Perhaps tomorrow, the landscape will look different.

Whitney Cleary’s art can be viewed online at whitneycleary.com.

Kelsey Perrett is a freelance writer, part time mail carrier, and author of the new guide to New England Hiking from Moon Travel.

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