Craig Marucci returns to his roots

Craig Marucci: Watercolours
The Art Exchange, 247 Wortley Road at Tecumseh
August 8-27, 2011

Craig Marucci has been painting seriously pretty much since he graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Art from Western in 1991. At first, he focussed on figurative works but he built his reputation as a London-based painter-of-note with his sweeping landscapes and stunning waterscapes. Although he paints in watercolour and oil, his watercolours are what immediately come to mind when you think of Marucci’s work.

It is not surprising, then, that Marucci’s current show at The Art Exchange features watercolour paintings on paper. The subject matter, however, is different from what his audience has come to expect.  Only five of the twenty or so pieces are landscapes, while the rest are figurative paintings that represent a return to his roots.

Four of the landscapes are large pieces painted 10 years ago. Both the sheer size of the paintings and Marucci’s facility with this unforgiving medium suggests that the artist was painting then with a sure touch and lots of confidence.

North of Medway, which he likely painted from the window of his studio, is vintage Marucci. A vast, concave landscape clings to the bottom edge of the painting, overpowered by the oppressive blue-black storm clouds hovering above. The muted landscape is indistinct, its trees mere daubs, its horizon line melting into the rain-soaked sky.

Marucci painted North of Medway loosely, freely, wet-on-wet, yet he manages to keep the colours darkly rich and intense. This painting is more emotional interpretation than literal translation of a specific view. All the landscapes in the show have a similarly foreboding, ominous feeling about them. They evoke the sweeping, ever-changing, omnipresent magnificence of nature and the relative insignificance of man.

In contrast, Marucci’s figurative works are small pieces, tightly focussed, individualistic, and literal. They are surprisingly restrained works for someone so adept at maximizing the free-flow of watercolours, almost as if the human form has shackled the artist’s confidence. While there are many wonderful qualities in these works, there are also some “buts.”

Take Girl with Freckles for instance. The painting is a portrait of a pensive young woman with black hair, freckles, and a tattoo partly visible beneath a grey top. The artist has loosely painted the background in deep blue, grey, and brown, reminiscent of his landscapes. The girl’s face is expressive and a blue wash around the eyes nicely draws your attention to them. But Marucci’s rendering of the body is constrained and the sharp delineation between the girl and the background makes the figure seem stuck onto rather than integrated with the backdrop.

In Tattoo, Marucci has discarded the background altogether. This works because of the pale tonality and cropping of the figure. A delicate line drawing gives shape to a woman standing with arched back and outstretched hand. She shows off the lobster tattoos that adorn her body, the cut on her arm adding a disturbing dimension. The drawing is beautifully expressive, especially the face and hand, and the skin tones freely rendered. But the tattoos are such a harsh blue that they become a distraction and they seem pasted on rather than etched into the girl’s flesh.

In Seated Figure, Marucci has rendered a woman using a thin, black line of ink, which is sparely but sensitively drawn. The artist has loosely applied green, red, and yellow paint to give form to the figure and reinforced the outline with dramatic slashes of red. This work is more painterly and more dynamic than many of the other figurative pieces in the exhibit. But, in this case, the lack of a background or context leaves the figure floating uncomfortably on the page and the work feeling unfinished.

Marucci says that the figurative paintings in the show are transitional works and this explains a lot. There is no doubt that he is a highly skilled artist, but these works do not do his talent justice. This exhibit is likely a little too early in the artist’s transitional period. That said Marucci deserves a lot of credit for moving out of his comfort zone and trying something different. Returning to your roots in a fresh, new way is never easy and it usually takes several kicks at the can to get it right.

Susan Scott is a London-based arts writer and visual artist. Her work is on view at www.londonartists.ca.