WATER MILL THOUGH he is only 36 years old, John MacWhinnie has been a presence in Long Island painting circles for 15 years. He had his first solo exhibition at the Cord Gallery in Southampton in 1966, followed by a number of shows at Southampton College. He has also been featured at the Parrish Art Museum and garnered a prize at the Heckscher Museum for excellence in painting.
Mr. MacWhinnie took some time to find his own voice, having been influenced by Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers and Alex Katz. He flirted with a variety of popular stylistic persuasions as if he, like Raphael, had to swallow all he admired before he could become his own man.
As his current exhibition at the Louise Himelfarb Gallery proves, he has been his own man for quite a while. We can still recognize his artistic infatuations - at times too strong - but in most cases he has subsumed them into his own mature vision. In his best endeavors, we view these infatuations as nods to his own past.
The exhibition is not big enough to provide a comprehensive notion of Mr. MacWhinnie's esthetic evolution toward autonomy, yet it offers a number of examples that demonstrate his broad and considerable talent as both a draftsman and painter, as well as his individual strengths.
One aspect that contributes forcefully and intriguingly to Mr. MacWhinnie's art is its contradictory nature. In works like ''Kerri'' and ''Sleeping Woman,'' it pays a strong tribute to the traditional with its emphasis on primacy of line, its modeling techniques and subject matter, while the overall effect is decisively modernist. By any measure, the artist is a Western painter, but there is an unmistakable Oriental aura in the serenity of his work and in its confident delicacy, as in ''Still Life With Birds.''
His portraits, such as ''Julie Manet,'' and some of his landscapes, done in oil on paper, can seem summary in their impetuous sketchiness and still seem finished. His ''Study for Swimmer'' and ''Osage Indian or Early Morning'' can project the stoicism of an ascetic and yet convey a stirringly expressive mood. And, too, there is a disruptive approach in some instances, a cavalier archness, that contrasts brusquely with the personal warmth.
A sensuality of faint colors is suffused into compositions that can be quite rigorous, with the severe self-consciousness of old photographs that they suggest. Mr. MacWhinnie can flesh out parts of his figures, like the head, with a plastic assertiveness, while the rest of the body is absorbed into the stylized and mechanical flatness of his composition. The artist nimbly and effectively bridges imperatives of abstract and representational art.
On view with Mr. MacWhinnie's works is the art of John Day. Like Mr. MacWhinnie, Mr. Day has a penchant for pictorial paradoxes, but he is an abstractionist who combines a quiet voluptuousness of color and light with a stern geometric structure.
While we are aware in these fascinating works of the freedom and imaginative subtleties suggested in the colors and the lyrical light, we are also conscious that these effects are kept in check by the structural severity Mr. Day has imposed upon them. There seems to be a tranquil push and pull between the actual surfaces of the works and their intimations of depth, a kind of mathematical certainty about them pitted against a metaphysical and spiritual ambiguity.