“Barking Dog,” acrylic on canvas by JohnWinship
“Barking Dog,” acrylic on canvas by JohnWinship
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All anyone can ask of an artist is, “Convince me that what you’re showing me is somehow real. I don’t care how you do it.” There are as many ways to do this as there have been artists.

How do artists keep all the parts of a painting living and “talking” to each other so that when you stop painting, the painting keeps talking? The French cave paintings are 40,000 years old and deep underground, but they not only still talk to us, they sing.

Here are three painters who take quite different approaches to creating a convincing reality.

John Winship is a widely exhibited painter and teacher with more than 30 solo shows in major cities, galleries, and museums. NPR’s Linda Wertheimer speaks of his “dark and dreamlike pictures seeming to evoke another time.”

Winship starts with the endearing ambiance of old snapshots, where the subject may be confusingly framed or obscured, or where incongruous events appear simultaneously. Without recognizable contexts, found photos can have surreal qualities without the slightest alteration or reinterpretation.

Winship interprets, nevertheless, intentionally collating the inexplicable with the mystifying in landscapes with vast skies that earth has rarely seen. Somehow, they do feel familiar, maybe from the thick atmosphere of dreams.

In “Barking Dog,” a 1940s couple pose late on a summer’s day. He, in a stylishly raked fedora, leans confidently against a dark structure. She, in a sleeveless, black dress, stands beside him, one bare arm modestly behind her back. The patch of dying sun behind them completely shadows their features. This couple alone might be enough to evoke the inexplicable past, but two other events deepen the mystery without clarifying it. A barking dog twists uncomfortably in the foreground, yapping aggressively towards a further distant couple, perhaps a mother and daughter talking as they walk into a dark copse of trees. The dog objects, and above them all looms a huge, uncanny sky.

These paintings intentionally seek to be strange, and they succeed. Surreality is a form of reality, after all. Perhaps Winship depends on those otherworldly skies a little too much, though. In their repetition, a little reality is lost.

For thirty years, Ted Keller was a ceramic artist, making pottery and sculpture, living in, and teaching from, Union. He left ceramics for painting 20 years ago, and in 2008, the New Mexico sun, mountains and light attracted him to Taos, where he still resides. Unable to resist, though, he continues to frequent midcoast Maine.

In a New York night scene, “Houston Street,” a neighborhood on the major thoroughfare thrums in the wee hours. A car makes a left while a delivery truck impatiently waits, headlights blazing. Random windows shine softly in apartments above. A streetlight’s acid yellow glare pops complementary lilac in six stories of window trim, while ghostly green copper rooftops glow above dark brickpile canyons, and the sheer bigness of the city marches away with its millions of tales.

“Down Bowery Street, NYC” is a large and lively compilation of five views and three streets, looking downtown on a fresh summer day full of sunshine, birds, traffic and pedestrians of all ages, colors and stripes. Like all of Keller’s images, whether day or night, it is cheerful, festive, full of joy. A flock of birds flaps into a sky full of little splashes of color that open up space like confetti at a parade. The day feels typically real though, not a holiday, except that you feel like Sinatra singing, “Start spreading the news — New York, New York!”

Ingrid Ellison is an abstract painter and teacher, well known in the midcoast for her elegant mixture of geometry and gesture. In “Ice House,” she evokes a frozen lake with two partial-pyramid roofs in front of her signature black-and-white, irregular checkerboards that feel more improvised than grid-like. The painting plays 3D against flatness, livening the picture plane with small strokes of contrasting and adjacent cool colors that say, “Ice!”

Ellison clearly loves paint and the act of mixing, brushing and scraping, painting out and back in. She creates a lively surface that “talks” to the other brushstrokes and colors in a close conversation that thoughtfully involves the viewer.

The title “We Could Smell the Rain” is the first line of one of Ellison’s poems, attached to the back of the canvas: “We could smell the rain before it arrived and stole the color out of the garden, now flat mute sage and celadon, awaiting 1st drop.” The painting is a meditation on this experience, with its soft jade greens and pouring blues evoking that silence, and then the rain. Its gestural grids may be handmade garden plots. The painting’s quiet suspense awaits that first fresh drop. Did poets invent metaphors to heighten reality? I think so.