Last Sunday’s arts preview highlighted five museums around the state that were relating – in whole or in part – the history of art in Maine from the 1800s to the present. Proceeding along that continuum are four galleries highlighting incredibly diverse aspects of our state’s contemporary art scene at this moment. Three of the shows close quite soon, so make a point of getting to them. I promise you they’ll be rewarding.
In “Daniel Anselmi and Robert Pollien” at Littlefield Gallery (through Sept. 19), two artists take divergent approaches to depicting Maine island landscapes.
You would never know Anselmi’s works – mostly monotype prints, some incorporating paint and collage elements – are about any place in particular, unless you were aware that he created these during a residency on Monhegan Island in 2013. They are completely abstract compositions of forms and textures. But they are drawn from observations of nature and coastal landscapes. Anselmi decontextualizes shapes from rock walls, shells, plants, found objects and other items, then collages these together with bits of handmade paper, notebooks, ledger sheets and other ephemera in multilayered compositions.
All titled “Monhegan Series” with only a reference number to differentiate them, Anselmi allows the forms to remain independent of specific interpretations so they can merely dance about the surface. But this series is specifically toned to the landscape of the island – ocean blues, grays and blacks of rock formations, orangey yellow of lichen, rusts of weathered buoys and boats. They have a kind of musicality to them reminiscent of Caio Fonseca’s work, although they’re far more complexly constructed. But they exude the same sense of elegance, albeit in an organic way that transmits the feeling of the land and sea that inspired them.
Pollien, on the other hand, continues in the tradition of coastal landscape painting that many artists have practiced since they began flocking to the rugged terrain of Mount Desert Island. They certainly capture the moodiness of the island’s craggy shorelines, sometimes partially engulfed in fog, without going to the descriptive lengths that painters like Winslow Homer or Thomas Cole did. Yet Pollien doesn’t flirt with Marin-style abstraction either.
This middle ground enhances their romanticism while keeping them squarely in a modernist sensibility, an interesting hybrid that makes oil-on-panel paintings like “Fog, Isle au Haut” and “Beech Cliff, Autumn” work so well. The reductionism of forms in “Fog” is thoroughly modern, yet the subtle color modulations that accurately capture the texture and wetness of the rocks are viscerally romantic. “Beech Cliff” takes some modernist liberties with documentary depiction too, yet the rock face here is so gorgeously achieved – appearing in parts almost like natural rose quartz – that it stirs the heart and inspires a sense of majesty we might associate with someone like Homer. .
An added bonus: Jane and Kelly Littlefield’s juxtapositions of sculptural works that echo the sensibilities of the two-dimensional pieces on the walls. “Vertical Gate” by Vasily Vasilis looks like one of Anselmi’s monotypes come to three-dimensional monochromatic life, while the quartzite and basalt sculptures by Mark Herrington look lifted from areas of Pollien’s paintings.
Littlefield Gallery, 145 Main St., Winter Harbor, 207-963-6005; 11 am to 5 pm daily. littlefieldgallery.com
At Maine Art Gallery, “Collective Imagination: seven painters” (through Sept. 17) represents the work of the artist collective Seven, which includes Emily Blaschke, Jenny Maccia Campbell, Alicia Sampson Etheridge, Michel Droge, Celeste June Henriquez, Doreen Nardone, Brenda Overstrom and Donald M. Peterson. The collective arose out of a desire by seven of these artists to continue working with Droge, who in 2015 taught a continuing studies class in abstract painting they all attended. Their first show was at Zero Station in Portland in 2017.
Each of these painters has developed a singular style. But it is nevertheless interesting to see how ideas also migrate among the artists, emerging in slightly different ways. Droge is well known for paintings that look like effulgences of colors appearing out of a mysterious depth and rending apart networks of grids or netting, an abstract language through which she expresses new ideas and systems bursting forth and pushing away old beliefs and power structures.
Although very differently incorporated, Campbell uses stencils in many paintings that recall the visual texture of Droge’s netting. Her works are far more energetic and boldly colored than Droge’s, sporting dripped paint, handprints and turbulent gesture. Yet with works such as “In the Night” and “Springtime, I Thought You’d Never Come,” she eschews the stencil, letting wild gesture take over in frenetically teeming, fecund works that, to my mind, are her best.
Peterson, a trained architect whose black-and-white photography is elegant, reserved and interested in geometries of manmade structures in natural environments, breaks free here with a kind of abstraction that displays Droge’s sense of depth and effulgence. Yet he remains distinct in that many of his paintings appear to partially obscure forms behind washes of color, creating an intriguing sense of mystery. There are square shapes of color, but they appear in the process of becoming, or can intimate floating cities or landscapes behind thick mists.
Nardone’s abstractions feel informed by Hans Hofmann’s ideas of push-pull, where gesture is held in a tension with loose, but defined forms. “Narrative,” the most accomplished work, and “Cause and Effect” are excellent examples of this style. Interestingly, a work like “Steel Derrick Quarry” has none of this and, instead, feels synchronous with Peterson’s floating city-like works.
There isn’t enough room to go into each artist here. Briefly, however, Overstrom’s palette, quick surface brushstrokes and compositional style (where strokes cluster more densely at the center) can at times recall the paintings of Nancy Graves. Henriquez, at this point, is an established, highly regarded artist who mixes abstraction and representation that often juxtaposes a maternal figure with a child figure. Her very moving paintings concern themselves with the challenges, as well as the joys, of mothering a special needs child.
Horses feature prominently in the work of Etheridge, who seems informed by mythologies and folk tales. At times her work can seem to allude to that of Marc Chagall (“Womb Person”), at other times Picasso (“Bent Out of Shape”). And Blaschke seems the odd woman out here with works that careen precariously towards kitsch. They incorporate thick encrustations of marbles, beads, plastic birds and other ephemera on abstractly painted grounds, often varnished to a thick sheen.
Maine Art Gallery, 15 Warren St., Wiscasset, 207-687-8143; 11 am to 4 pm Wednesday through Saturday. maineartgallerywiscasset.org
“Don’t Show This to Anybody” at Sarah Bouchard Gallery (through Sept. 18) is a meditative oasis of calm compared to the colorful expressionism of Seven. Tom Butler, an unjustly under-appreciated Portland artist, is interested in looking at photography from every angle but the most obvious; meaning as documentation of frozen moments of reality. His thesis is that photography has forever changed memory, made it lazy and untrustworthy beyond its normal unreliability. If we doubt what someone looked like, there is the photo to remind us.
To interrogate this idea of photography’s alleged accuracy, he manipulates the medium in ways that confuse verisimilitude. For instance, he can completely obliterate the images of Victorian “cabinet cards” – photos mounted on cardboard that were kept in cabinets – by placing them on bronze plates and burning them so that what remains is simply a rectangle of metal pock-marked with the evidence of incineration.
Or he will cover a card with paper to create a graphite rubbing, sometimes registering pieces of tape at the corners. Both these methods apprehend only the sculptural quality of the cards themselves, completely sans image.
In his “Ghostcards” series, the obscuration is partial. He covers a cabinet card with gesso, sands it and repeats the process until what’s left is a phantom image that struggles to come into sight through the veil between life and afterlife.
His “Pencils of Nature” are inspired by photography innovator Henry Fox Talbot’s pronouncement that photos would one day replace pencils as a medium of representation. While that hasn’t happened, exactly, his “pencils” – stacked and glued cabinet cards – are cut and sanded to resemble styluses. Revealed through the layers are an eye or a pair of hands or some other feature he singles out, evoking a sense of mystery by denying us information about the full image.
There’s more, and it requires time and contemplation to fully absorb what Butler is up to. But it is, in the end, at once enigmatic and lyrical, eerie and melancholy.
Sarah Bouchard Gallery, 13 Nequasset Pines Road, 207-809-9670; by appointment only, to schedule visit sarahbouchardgallery.com.
You have a bit longer to see “Forest Murmurs – the Maine Woods: Paintings by Joel Babb” (through Oct. 1) at Greenhut Galleries. Here we come full circle back to the tradition of landscape painting. But it is of a different order entirely. It can take Babb months to finish a single canvas, so meticulous is he in conveying every detail of moss, rock, leaf, light, bark and stream.
I could stare for hours at “A Sunlit Brook – Wight Brook, Grafton Notch, Maine.” While not exactly photographic in its realism (“It still has to look like a painting,” Babb told me at the opening), it is nonetheless replete with breathtaking detail. It’s truly a masterpiece, especially in the way Babb catches the light filtering through the trees onto the brook. Plein air works such as “On the Nezinscot, Morning Effect” might be more impromptu and have the energetic gestures of visible strokes. But they are still amazingly faithful to the scene.
Babb’s is a virtuosic painting – no question about it. And he reminds us of what is enduring and just plain awesome about keenly observed landscape painting in our modern age.
Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland, 207-772-2693; 10 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm Saturday. greenhutgalleries.com
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Peak TV bonanza complicates Emmy goal of honoring the best