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Last modified: 5/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
Before I had a chance to view John Bonner's work, I imagined his exhibit included shells and driftwood and frayed rope, things washed up on the shore. I later told the artist the title, 'Bits of Sea,' conjured the image of assemblage. Bonner laughed, and said he had considered using the double-entendre 'Bits of See,' to slyly inform the audience they would find little glimpses of the water in each of his paintings. No matter which way you spell it, the title rings true; Bonner brings varied views of the sea to McGowan Fine Art in a showing of his newest work.

Although born and raised in England, Bonner has lived in Massachusetts since the mid '80s: The subject of his painted work is by and large the coast north of Boston, including his home town of Marblehead. Marblehead is the quintessential New England coastal village, but you will have to look hard to discern famous landmarks in Bonner's views of the town; back alleys, side streets and rear facades abound.

'Bay View' is the most straight-up landscape in the exhibit. The perspective is from the street, looking between the side and the rear elevations of two modest, waterfront cottages. The water is mostly blocked by a shingled gable, and further complicated by a telephone pole. Yet somehow your eyes get around these obstacles to the blue water, distant boats and clouds scurrying across the windswept sky. Normally an artist would aim to make the water accessible to the audience, but Bonner challenges viewers to stand on their toes and peer around and between to catch a glimpse of the scenery.

Access to the water is easy in England, Bonner says. 'There are roads right along the shore,' he said. In Massachusetts, by contrast, ocean-front

property is privately owned and highly protected; the water is mostly viewed from a distance. 'You only see the ocean through someone else's property,' Bonner said. Almost all of Bonner's paintings in the McGowan exhibit represent this point of view; a hint of blue water at a distance; a shimmering surface, scarcely spied through a squint.

Bonner feels we are 'pulled toward the sea . . . because it represents beauty and adventure.' He carries the concept of hide-and-seek to yet another level by employing the technique of overpainting. He explains: 'My most recent work has tended to be paintings done over other, older paintings of my own. I like exploiting the ambiguities of the clash of the two different paintings, the fight for clarity.'

Many of the pieces in the McGowan exhibit are overpainted, although you have to search the titles for clues. 'Harbor View Over Porch,' 'Beverly Over Fence,' 'Browns Island Over Jetty,' all carry vestiges of their former selves. 'Ghost House' is the most spectral of these works. The left side of the painting is quite ordinary; a car parked beside a white clapboard colonial, tightly bound by a tall hedge and telephone pole. The center of the piece is a sunlit by-way, possibly a back alley. In the distance, and on the right side of the work, objects are starting to fade away; one structure is neither here nor there. Rather than appearing unfinished, 'Ghost House' leaves the impression the world down the road is a bit unknown.

The Bonner show includes the artist's other body of work, sketches done on the subway. When he first moved to Boston, he began doing quick studies of people he saw on the T. There is a bit of a science to this type of work; you have to time it so there isn't a major stop coming up, and it takes about two stops to complete a sketch. Bonner works in pencil or pen, then later fills out the work with paint or ink.

The subway sketches reveal a more whimsical side of Bonner. 'Romance Novel' features a middle-aged, full-figured woman clad in a shapeless, floral print dress; her short-cropped hair and oversize glasses leading one to believe she is not a fashion maven. One hand guards the oversize handbag on her lap; the other carefully holds a book that seems to be captivating her attention. It is apparent Bonner did not believe this woman to be the romantic sort. Another sketch shows a man on a bench, arms and legs askew. He is wearing baggy clothing, and the sneakers on his feet are like huge waffle irons, their patterned soles loudly heard when set in motion. The subject's head is mostly covered by his utilitarian stocking cap; it is obvious he is asleep. The title of this piece is, 'Letting It All Hang Out.'

Bonner says about his subway sketches, 'I don't have much vested in those drawings, so I feel I can experiment a bit more. . . . I can be much more accidental . . . but in a way the small drawings inform the large pieces.'

The John Bonner exhibit at McGowan Fine Art runs from May 18-June 18, with an artist's reception on May 21 from 5-7 p.m. The show is free and open to the public. McGowan Fine Art is located at 10 Hills Avenue in Concord. For further information, call 225-2515.


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