Make no mistake: the New Bedford Whaling Museum is the largest single repository of historical artifacts, significant works of art, scientific specimens, collected writings and regional ephemera on the South Coast.
Certainly, much of this is directly related to whaling (and a collective sense of atonement for the sins associated with the slaughter of large animals), as well as other maritime activities and endeavors.
Often, works are exhibited here that provide direct commentary on the global damage done by humanity to the oceans and the flora and fauna that reside there. “Turn the Tide: Courtney Mattison” (previously reviewed) is currently on display in the museum’s Herman Melville Room.
His beautiful and delicate ceramic sculpture and installations, backed by scientific knowledge, are something of an indictment, as they rightly blame humanity for the continued destruction of coral reefs around the world.
Concurrent exhibit in the neighboring Braitmayer family gallery within the museum is “Loomings: Christopher Volpe” and his paintings are the perfect complement to Mattison’s work. While Mattison is light in tone (off-white, pastel pink and lavender), Volpe is dark in tone (black-leaning browns, dark grays), as he uses oil paints and tar as his main medium of choice.
The title of Volpe’s exhibition comes from the first chapter of Herman Melville’s opus “Moby Dick, or the Whale”. It’s a winding man-versus-monster masterpiece, rich with colorful multi-ethnic characters, sailor vernacular, flowery rhetoric, Old Testament allusions, the occasional hint of homoeroticism. and a rambling stream of monologues of conscience.
But Volpe doesn’t illustrate Moby Dick as if he were creating a postmodern Classic Illustrated comic strip. Instead, he comes to each painting, usually armed with a quote from Melville or embracing an allusion to the book, without making any obvious choices. There’s no crazy-legged captain, there’s no ragtag crew or reliable narrator. There isn’t even a white whale, let alone below the surface of the sea.
In a statement by Volpe, he acknowledges his desire to evoke what Melville “saw prophetically in the 1850s: America’s industrial history as an endless pursuit of wealth and the dominance of ‘wild’ nature. , even at our own expense”.
By incorporating thinned tar as a painting medium, derived from fossil fuels (which are recklessly over-extracted), Volpe achieves a rare richness in black, held in check, here and there, with the application of gold leaf. Almost as if indulging in clever, self-aware irony, he nods at his own infinitesimal contribution to climate change, aware of the bigger picture.
The use of whale oil was a precursor to the development of petroleum-based products. Next to the painting in the gallery are two cases containing goods (from the museum’s collection) from an earlier era. There’s plant food, brake fluid, harness dressing (“unmatched for hooves”), Zenobia Wallflower fragrance and NYOil, which “cleans, lubricates, polishes and prevents rust on firearms , fishing gear, typewriters, sewing machines, pianos”.
There is a table with a rather long name. It’s titled “Captain’s Mirror” (“I leave a cloudy white wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, wherever I sail. Envious waters swell laterally to overwhelm my track; leave them; but I pass from ‘on board.”). It features a postcard-sized ocean image atop a vertically oriented mirror. It may very well be a commentary on Ahab’s oversized conceited ego.
Another painting is called “Jacob’s Ladder”, a complete abstraction of scattered golden grains in a darkened sky, a game of hopscotch rungs.
But there is a price to pay for such pride. And Volpe introduces the bill: it’s nature itself manifesting as a deadly vortex threatens a ship in “Waterspout” (“I heard old Ahab tell him he must always kill a gust, something as they burst a waterspout with a gun – shoot your ship right into that!’).”
Or nature as fire as smoke billows from the boat in “The Sea Will Have Its Way (Burning Whaler.)”. In others, ships are dangerously buffeted or obscured by fog, increasing the risk of sinking. It is as if the elements – wind, ocean, fire, unseen earth – have conspired to challenge those who believe that nature must be conquered without consequence.
As stated in the text that accompanies the exhibition: “We still tempt Ahab’s unknowable gods and flout the signs and omens of extinction. And like the captive crew aboard the Pequod, we remain adrift in troubled and impenetrable seas.
“Loomings: Christopher Volpe” is on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, 18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford until May 8.