In art, there are few subjects more difficult to do well than the seascape. It is a relatively featureless muse; an open plane of water mirrored by the sky. With so little for the eye to grasp onto, it is typical for the artist to opt for a quick fix in generating visual interest within the scene. This often occurs in the form of seagulls, a ship, a portion of shoreline peeking into the composition, cloud formations, and crashing waves. It goes without saying how cliché these devices have become.
However, it is possible to approach the seascape without falling into this trap, and Enrique Santana’s exhibit Atlantic, on view at Chase Young Gallery this month, is proof of it. Santana’s paintings of the Atlantic Ocean are bold by allowing nothing but water, clouds, and sky to fill the compositions. Instead of relying on objects to generate visual interest, the focus in these pieces is on light and the many different ways it travels through the environment.
In one painting, the sun is diffused into a hazy glare across the sky, the only clue as to its exact location a distinct line of rays cutting across the top of the water. In another piece, an intense orange sunset is partially hidden by clouds, creating a dull gray sheen over the water as the rosy light filters through the rest of the sky. Each scene included in Santana’s exhibit contains a very different mood and instills a meditative sense in viewers by showing essentially the exact same subject with only the time of day and atmospheric conditions changed. Focusing on this aspect of the work leads viewers toward thinking about how transitory the ocean and nature are, and allows them to become lost in examining what is before them without the constraints of analytical interpretation.
Santana uses a very subtle but important device that encourages viewers to reach this point of free observation. The compositions tend to be cropped in on a view of calm, unobstructed ocean with no indication of land in sight. The first step the brain takes in making sense of a picture is to figure out where the ground is. Santana’s seascapes lack this anchor, which causes the eye to continue searching the piece. Subconsciously, viewers are still looking for the ground, but then the intricate networks of precise strokes that form the ripples in the water become more interesting. The eye then begins to focus on the wide variety of colors hidden in the ripples. Soon viewers are lost in an examination of pure color and form, and Enrique Santana has successfully gotten us to look at the ocean for what it truly is.