Michael Torlen: "The
Evidence of What Remains"
When we consider Michael Torlen's new work, an observation art historian John Wilmerding made about the evolution of marine art comes to mind. "Because marine painting was less bound to precedent than other genres for subject or manners of painting," Wilmerding noted, "it often permitted experimental and fresh expressions."1 Drawing on personal experience, family history, literature and life, Torlen refreshes the marine genre, as he tips his brush to past generations-of artists and fishermen.
Part of the power of Torlen's vision derives from first-hand knowledge of his subject. Earlier in his life he worked alongside his Norwegian-born father, a commercial fisherman, on a tuna clipper off the coast of Southern California. From visits to Maine over the past quarter century the artist also knows the island fishermen, on Monhegan and elsewhere, hardy individuals who brave deep waters to gain a living. These connections lend resonance-and the ring of truth-to this work.
Outfitted with simple bamboo casting poles or purse seines, Torlen's fishers of the sea contend with tuna or mind nets from sturdy dories. His tributes to fishermen on both coasts hark back to the homage Winslow Homer paid, in paintings like The Fog Warning (1885), to the men who fished the Grand Banks in the nineteenth century. In both cases, the artists honor the courage of individuals close to nature and marked by an innate dignity.2
Torlen's work also responds to the loss of fisheries and a way of life,
at times in a forthright manner. The cross-out sign superimposed on the
suspended tuna in Warning speaks directly to an imminent collapse. A figure
in a yellow hat points to the bluefin as if to say, "Look, the fish
The technical means match the vision throughout the exhibition. In the
monotypes, Torlen experiments with various mediums to re-energize the
seascape tradition. Pigmented digital printing, plate lithography and
silkscreen contribute to the visual dynamics. In Red Dory two men in a
boat are immersed in a caul of luminous color. Another monotype, Hook,
uses a feathered barb as a repeating graphic element. Other pieces, like
Fish Corner, Fish and Yellow Sea and Anticipation, have a marvelous surreal
The new work exhibited here is a part of "Sanger Fra Mor."4 Torlen dedicates this sequence to his mother "and to the women who live to tell the stories"-of fishermen who go to sea and sometimes do not return. His mission, he says, is to make art, to trace ancestry and discover signs-"the evidence of what remains"-in order to rescue the dead and appeal to the living.5