After a decade of experimentation, Amherst artist Tom Morton returns to his roots

For much of the past decade, Tom Morton had been experimenting with different kinds of art: video installations, collages, sculpture. But within the last couple of years, the Amherst artist began returning to his roots: painting.

“Painting is more direct — it’s hands on,” said Morton in a recent interview at Gallery A3 in Amherst, where a show of his new work runs until the end of the month. “Video installations take a lot of time, and they can be tough to put together by yourself ... it seemed the next step was to get into film editing, and I wasn’t prepared to go that far.”

But in moving back to painting regularly for the first time in years, Morton found himself having to, if not reinvent the wheel, rediscover something of the craft. His new exhibit, “Learning Curves,” reflects his process of reapplying his paintbrushes and his excitement in rediscovering the pleasure of painting.

“I’m not sure if I never knew how to paint or if I was just going back to something I hadn’t done in awhile,” he said with a chuckle.

The exhibit, which offers 18 new acrylic paintings on canvas and panel, is an exploration of both color and form. As part of his reorientation to painting, Morton did reproductions of work by other artists, including Monet and Van Gogh, then used those copies as studies for original paintings that reimagine those works. He also used a wooded, slightly overgrown tract behind his house as a reference point and inspiration for several other original works.

Morton’s highly colorful paintings — they’re imbued with rich, layered blues, greens, reds and yellows — are predominantly abstract landscapes that are also filled with varied motifs, some of which echo between paintings. He likes to play with images, transferring them from a more straightforward presentation in one painting to a more abstract one in the next.

For instance, some of the twisting, S-shaped brushstrokes he uses in “Fauve Willow” to represent the leaves of a willow tree become mysterious figures — serpents, perhaps? In “Learning Curves,” an abstract, double-canvas painting, the two surfaces are closely related but don’t quite match up thematically or visually.

“I wanted to use both canvasses, but I didn’t want them just to blend into each other,” Morton said.

There are hints of impressionism, post-impressionism as well as fauvism in Morton’s work, in which the emphasis on rich color and painterly qualities mixes with representational values. “I’m sort of a magpie,” he said. “I like to take bits and pieces [from different styles] and experiment with them.” He also says he’s long been drawn to avant-garde art — “anything that pushes the envelope.”

Inspired by Monet

One of his starting points for the new show was a 1902 painting by Monet, “Garden Path, Giverny,” a work that was part of a series the French impressionist did to showcase the pond and greenery around his home in Giverny, northwest of Paris. Morton says this particular painting has always been among his favorites by Monet; he particularly likes the contrast between the dark of the overhanging trees at the top of the painting and the sunlit path that threads its way to a house in the lower part.

In his copy of Monet’s work, Morton recreates something of impressionism’s fine brushstrokes, though he shifts the angle of the painting by showing the garden path moving to the right of the canvas. And in his variation of this work, his brushstrokes become a good bit broader and the colors wilder, creating an almost jungle-like landscape, with no hint of a house in the picture.

Morton uses some of the same colors and broad strokes in his largest canvas, the 32-inch-by-42-inch “Dingle Trees Panorama 1,” one of a series of paintings inspired by the view in his backyard of a line of trees, including a willow tree, and a darker line of brush that runs at the base of the trees. Here, the green of the Amherst woods takes on a semi-tropical look and feel, with a touch of Gauguin.

On one wall of his show, Morton has pinned a photograph of the woods and brush behind his house so that visitors can see the inspiration for his “Dingle” series and consider the ways he’s interpreted the landscape. The inspiration for the titles, he notes, comes from the opening line of the W.H. Auden poem “The Wanderer,” which reads “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.”

In a number of his other paintings, Morton, who studied art at Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and taught at area colleges, becomes much more abstract. Varied shapes — arches, triangles, S-curves — command the center of the canvas. One of the most striking of this set is his variation of a painting by Gerhard Richter, the contemporary German abstract artist.

In Morton’s work, two multi-colored arches are interposed with thin curves and lines that recall something of the tree trunks and foliage of his other paintings, though here they take on a different definition. And at the bottom of the frame, a blur of blue, silvery lines seems to imply rushing water; a small grid work — a broken ladder? — juts out from these waves.

It’s an arresting image, and the varied lines that crisscross the painting give the eye many points to focus on.

Above all, the brightness of Morton’s canvasses draws you in.

“What I really value is color and expression,” Morton said. “Lyrical, vibrant colors are what I’m looking for.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Tom Morton’s “Learning Curves” will be on view at Galley A3 in Amherst through June 28. A dance and music program, free and open to the public, takes place at the gallery June 27 at 7:30 p.m. Gallery hours are Thursdays through Sundays from 1 to 7 p.m. For information, visit gallerya3.com.