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Waves of Color, Shades of Enigma

This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied. MICHAEL CHASE talks of the paint in his pictures - it's watercolor - as being ``enjoyable in itself.'' It ``travels across the paper in a wave of color and then settles to a form or image,'' he says.

This makes him sound like an abstract painter. But he isn't. To him ``things seen'' in the outside world are basic. The word ``travel'' to describe the way he applies his paint perhaps carries an extended meaning: The picture shown here (which he calls a ``nocturne''), as in many of his other works, derives from travels away from his native Britain.

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It is connected with a panoramic mountainscape seen from a monastery in Greece - the monastery of Hosios Lukas near Delphi, not far from Mount Parnassus, anciently sacred to Apollo and the Muses. But I suspect this mythical deity appeals less to Chase's sense of atmosphere than Hosios Lukas himself: He was a monk born in AD 896, an ascetic, who spent his time constantly praying even as a child. Chase felt that he ``could almost hear the monks singing at their devotions of an early evening.''

Chase is not, however, making ``place pictures'': They aren't geographical records. He paints his finished paintings in the studio at home in Suffolk, England. So any idea that he might be painting ``just a view'' is wrong.

Two different things underpin his procedure in the studio: Numerous sketchbooks filled with his drawings from nature on the one hand - he calls them ``research matter'' - and the adventure of washing on and overlaying his watercolors in a free manner without an end result decided beforehand. He balances in creative paradox much planning and no planning. But if a painting looks spontaneous, this could be misleading; in fact he may keep it on his easel for a week or two, steadily working it out.

Other things are particularly characteristic.

There is a clear aim to avoid the convention of watercolor being a way of ``coloring'' a line drawing. There is very little underdrawing in his paintings.

CHASE is also keen on borders - sometimes they are like columns, or curtains drawn aside - which surround and contain his landscapes. Partly these borders interest him because he wants to avoid the way some artist's paintings seem ``to peter out'' at the edges. ``I couldn't bear that'' he says. Borders also increase the mystery of his works, which in this case is further heightened by the introduction, as part of the border, of the partly seen horse - almost a surreal touch - which the painter has borrowed and adapted from a marble of 490 BC in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. What might have been a straightforwardly romantic landscape is given a feeling of archaic enigma by this strange equine intervention.

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