Studio and Stagecraft, James Hope’s Watkins Glen Art Gallery 1872-1892 by Jane Bianco

Perhaps Maine artists want to look back to Hope’s time when viewing art in a gallery was sometimes more of an ‘event’, like going to a theater. Linking studio practice and tourism is very much what we do here during Maine summers.

                                                                            Jane Bianco, Curator at the Farnsworth

 

James Hope (1818/19-1892) was a respected contemporary of painters Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and others who aggrandized expansive vistas of the American landscape.  From 1852, Hope was established as a portraitist and landscape painter with studios in New York City and Castleton, Vermont. Twenty years later he relocated to Watkins Glen, New York, after completing a lucrative painting commission at the popular tourist destination.  Its central appeal, a shalestone and sandstone canyon featuring stepped waterfalls and pothole pools was a geologic wonder carved from the wilderness. It drew thousands of visitors after opening as a public attraction in 1863, and also became the inspiration for many of Hope’s paintings during the last two decades of his career.

Hope’s Glen Art Gallery
Gallery Card
Image courtesy of NPS, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland

This natural spectacle was described exuberantly as a place “in whose marvelous gorges and splendid cliffs man may read, as scarce anywhere else, the world’s age…pages of history-in-rock, clothed in rare and exquisite ferns and orchids….”[1]  In 1872 Hope strategically located his gallery near the entrance to the glen and charged visitors a fee to view his gallery, which he also stocked with souvenirs and stereoptic cards of scenes from the glen made by his photographer son. His account of the gallery included encouragement to linger, as noted in the Descriptive Guide Book of the Watkins Glen:

HOPE’S ART GALLERY

This gallery, built by Captain J. Hope, late of 82 Fifth Avenue, New York, is beautifully lighted and contains a superb collection of more than one hundred of his finest paintings. Here can be seen the leading scenes in Watkins Glen, and its surroundings; also scenes in New England, Virginia, California, Europe, Sic., chief among which are, his celebrated picture of

RAINBOW FALLS;

also his great historical painting of the

ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,

and many others well known in former New York exhibitions.

Guests can spend many a pleasant hour here, and no visitor to the Glen should fail to see this splendid collection. There is an admission fee of 25 cents to this gallery, as it does not belong to the Glen. A short distance beyond the Gallery is a convenient platform, erected for the use of picnic parties.

By 1882 Hope was supplementing his studio practice, managing “seasonal repairs and ornamental structures of the Glen,” and capitalizing further on this attraction by collaborating with the souvenir business operated by the Glen Mountain House hotel, perched above one of the ravines.[2]

The Hope gallery of idyllic landscape paintings, as introduction to the splendid glen with its steep pathways along and across deep pools and gorges, drew many visitors. They came on foot to experience the slightly dangerous, sublime beauty of the Glen, but unexpectedly would have confronted drama of a different sort upon entering the gallery. Hope’s other spectacle was his series of six-by-twelve-foot panoramas depicting the September 17, 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam. Painted in Hope’s last decade, these sweeping, large-scale views depict with immediacy some of the bloodiest Civil War battles between Union and Confederate forces, showing troop movement and death.[3] His firsthand observations of the battles as a member of the 2nd Vermont Regiment were the essence of a number of smaller paintings as well, including one in the Farnsworth Museum collection, currently on exhibit in Rockland, Maine.[4] It is a reduced-scale version of his panorama aptly named Wasted Gallantry, and depicts the 7th Maine Infantry charging into the line of fire in a futile attempt to eliminate Confederate sharp-shooters.  It has been noted that certain of the painter’s graphic details seen in the foreground in this and others of the series correlate with Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs documenting combat’s horrific aftermath, namely, the shocking display of soldiers’  mangled corpses.[5]

James Hope (1818/19 -1892)
Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 7th Maine Attacking over the Sunken Road through the Piper Cornfield, after 1862
Oil on canvas
18 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches
Farnsworth Art Museum; Gift of Alice Bingham Gorman, 1997.16

The incongruous display of death and beauty within the gallery would have intensified the visitor experience. Twelve years after Hope’s death, a 1904 auction catalogue listing eighty-three of his paintings quoted artists Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, and Civil War veterans, all who attested to the sensitivity and veracity of Hope’s compositions and their ability to transport:

it is not canvas, but the place itself I see![6]

Hope’s example of making his studio gallery part of an expanded sensation, in particular by way of his commemorative, even confrontational, exhibit, would have incited reaction—provoking, it might be argued, transference of heightened awareness to the landscape on an even grander scale, to be experienced just outside the studio.

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[1] The Famous Hope Canvases, Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, preface to auction catalogue, January 22-23, 1904, unpaginated. The catalogue lists 83 canvases, including Hope’s six panoramas (at5 ½  x 12 feet) focusing upon the September 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam.

[2] Elizabeth Theriault Strum, James Hope: Nineteenth Century American Painter, Masters Thesis, Syracuse University, 1984, (courtesy National Park Service, Antietam National Battlefield), 15-23. The Glen Mountain House, a resort replete with paths along the gorge and bridges spanning its rivers, with vista of cascades, had been opened to upwards of 10,000 tourists during the summer and autumn of 1863 by local newspaper owner Morvalden Ells and landowner, George Freer.

[3] The panoramas have been conserved by the National Park Service, and are on view at Antietam National Battlefield headquarters’ James Hope Gallery, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

[4] Dates of the smaller paintings of battle scenes have not been fixed; Hope may have produced these prior to his large-scale panoramas.

[5] See Philip Whitman, Long After Battle: James Hope’s ‘Authentic’ Commemoration of Antietam’s Bloody Lane, Masters Thesis, Skidmore College, 2017.

[6] The Famous Hope Canvases.

FROM THE EDITORS: NARRATIVES: PUBLIC AND PRIVATE Summer 2017

Narratives: Public and Private”

WELCOME! UMVA members and invited artists responded to our request below for our Summer 2017 Maine Arts Journal theme on narrative:

Are the stories in your work, or behind you work, of a personal nature, or are they in the commons? Are they old stories, myths, or topical ones? Or are they topical stories disguised as myths, or old stories that have a contemporary relevance? Are you an abstract painter using coded narratives, or are there stories behind abstract or cryptic works that the public will not know, but might feel or intuit?

With gratitude and wonder we share their stories and images with you on these digital pages. (PLEASE NOTE, most images will open in full size when clicked on).

The MAJ is organized around quarterly themes to which we encourage members to submit. Submission information and guidelines are to be found HERE. Please view the current issue and explore the archived issues that are available through the main menu.
We welcome your feedback on current features, proposals for future issues, and your ideas/submissions for upcoming themes. Our new format allows for comments. We hope to hear from you. And we hope you will JOIN the Union of Maine Visual Artists and SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE to receive the MAJ in your inbox each quarter

Maine Arts Journal Editorial Board,

Jeff Ackerman, Alan Crichton, Dan Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon

Maia Snow

What’s a Painting?

Maia Snow, “Aiahha” oil on canvas, 31″x28″ 2017

Lines disappeared and the blue overtook the vision as far as the peripherals would stretch. Sit down. Stand up. Sit again. Stare. Is the vision of your, their, mine and her bodies, intertwined, struggling to grasp and hold some ounces of air- born yet? My mother has photographs of me, which she printed out from Instagram. They are all over her home. All I want is to know what she smells like. What is the white line of clouds the planes leave behind anyways?  Are you my mother? Your skin syncs to mine quite nicely, and your pale belly makes me think that the sun doesn’t like you very much. I didn’t want to see her jump, and the color green -the right kind of sappy, muddy forest green, is really hard to mix. I want to put its light in my mouth. No hawks left in my organs. The surgery didn’t help and your face was never that important. One stroke for the chin, scrape away for the bottom lip, to show the shadow. Simple. I too, had children I looked after, forty of them at a time. Passionfruit wont leave my head, I like, too much, how it fills my ears with dance sounds. Get up. Hold five brushes in one hand, watch you grab all the kids on TV. Amy, with her sweaters can say hard sentences, but even her voice sometimes breaks. I cant understand the skin that moves on the screen, too fast and I hold my face, to make sure it is not like them. But it doesn’t feel any different. Now my mother cries louder then all the babies I ever had the chance to hold.

American Genre: Contemporary Painting

Howard Fonda, “Untitled (the future as seen through the past/stolen,given,owned, not owned, self, not self)”, oil and colored pencil on canvas. 56″x44″, 2017

Attention all painters, all artists!!  A great painting show is coming to Portland, Maine July, 2017.   Michelle Grabner, artist, writer, curator and Crown Family Professor of Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has curated an amazing exhibition, American Genre: Contemporary Painting opening on July 20 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art.

Amy Bennett, “Nothing New Under Sun”, 32″x40″, oil on canvas, 2016, photo courtesy of the artist and Richard Heller Gallery

Cultural production runs deep in Maine and genre painting is a symbolic force in our lineage.  As an artistic convention, genre is powerful as a chart of history, one that reveals artistic patterns and social, political and cultural American value systems.  Fifty painters from around the country will contribute one painting each with a focus on landscape, still life and portraiture. Visitors who come to see the show will have a chance to view a range of painting approaches assembled in one location and for geeky painters, this is a great opportunity to analyze current trends and recognize that genre painting offers a space of common ground.   American Genre: Contemporary Painting will provide a varied snapshot of contemporary life and reflect tradition as painting practice now.

Henry Taylor, “Danielle Dean”, acrylic on canvas, 48”x30”, 2012, photography credit: Collection Rosalie Benitez and Jeff Poe, Malibu, CA

Also! Mark your calendars. On September 15, 2017 there will be a symposium to bracket and close the show.  American Genre Painting:  A One-Day Symposium at the Maine College of Art will begin with a mid-morning keynote lecture by Marie Shurkus, Chair of Academic Studies at MECA, followed by lunch, and afternoon panel discussion moderated by critic, writer, poet and art historian Barry Schwabsky with panelists Sharon Butler, painter and writer of TWO COATS OF PAINT, and Roger White, painter and RISD faculty member. (One or two more panelists TBD)  A closing reception will take place at 5:00 in the ICA. This event is free and open to the public.

Dana DeGiulio, “Citizens”, oil on canvas, 25”×19″, 2015
Hope Gangloff, “After Party”, acrylic and collage on paper, 2015

I hope you can make it!  My best, Gail Spaien

Opening on Thursday, July 20 from 5:00-8:00pm

Check the website for more details and the list of artists included in the show: 

 https://www.meca.edu/about/institute-of-contemporary-art/coming-soon/american-genre-contemporary-painting/

From the Editors: Light in the Dark

above, Ben Shahn, Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-2

Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World

What are your symptoms: sleeplessness, anxiety, panic attacks, vague sense of fear, very specific fears, loss of appetite, uncontrollable sobbing, uncontrollable laughter? We all react differently, but are currently suffering from the same disease. We are deeply affected by world events in the depths of our psyche; the public becomes private. Artists, in a sense, reverse that process, and open up their private realms, their innermost thought processes, and put them on display for public scrutiny.

Bonfire of the Vanities_ 15th Century Florence

The public looks to artists, and artists look to each other, to help make sense of where the self collides with the culture. Culture is the articulation of a society’s values: art can posit, cross-examine, and tests these values to help us understand their true shapes, by finding their outer limits, their outlines.

In this issue we highlight a broad spectrum of artists from the region, and beyond, who, for the most part, have always made art that might serve as a candle to light our way in dark times. It may be that these times make such art even more relevant—we thirst more for work that strikes deeper chords. That does not mean that humor is absent from our survey, but humor is of course serious business.

We are not alone in seeking out an artistic response to political and cultural topics—the latest Whitney Biennial being the most prominent example. Reaction to that show serves as an example of another symptom of our cultural nervous condition. Is it the frayed nerves, the battered psyches, that have conspired to turn, what another year might be just a heated debate, into something that shreds the rules of civil discourse?

The reaction to the Dana Schutz painting, Open Casket, has divided an art culture that seems to all agree that racism is still with us and that it has caused the violent deaths of black lives across the country. Yet reasonable people have entertained the idea that the painting should be removed from the exhibition and even destroyed. I would like to think that both actions would be considered out of bounds in “normal” times. Such demands are something we have only seen in recent years on the far right side of the political spectrum. Even if these ideas were only put forward as a cynical act of self-promotion, it is now out in the world, being debated and taken seriously, as some are now debating other unthinkable proposals, like torture.

The Union of Maine Visual Artists is an arts advocacy group, so such rhetoric hits us hard. We expect, even encourage, artists to be provocative in a culture that values free speech. But that does not mean preaching to the choir, and provoking some hypothetical enemy, some ultra conservative straw man who is not likely to even be a part of the art audience. It means we provoke each other—to think and to act and react—even if it means touching a nerve. We give lip service to this value, so we need to follow through with this standard, even if we are offended and disturbed by an artwork. We share the belief that a fundamental standard of human rights is that it is not my right to curtail your rights; the right of an artist to create and the rights of an institution to display that creation.

The art audience is clearly divided on the merits of the painting, Open Casket. It is fair to question if the piece rises to the gravity of its subject, is it a good painting, and why is anyone, white or black, choosing to make a painting about this thorny subject? It has also raised the question of whether a white person can tell a black story. If we truly believe that we can only speak from our own experience, then much of the history of art and literature would be negated. But most disturbing are the ad hominem attacks on the artist and on the defenders of the artist; they seem a product of the times—more the result of overstressed emotion than the outcome of reasoned analysis.

If the critics of Schutz feel she is lacking in empathy, the irony is that these critics lack empathy for the artistic process. She has been accused of being motivated by “fun and profit,” yet the decision to paint this subject would have to have been the result of serious deliberation. The process of painting it would further subject this conception to scrutiny and self-doubt.

At a certain point in the creation of an artwork, the piece escapes the orbit of artistic control, the artist becomes collaborator, coaxing it into existence. Now complete, it is no longer Schutz’s painting, but ours, and it will take on a life beyond our moment. Does one person’s story belong to them or their group, once it is out in the world? We may look back in ten years and see the painting as part of a temporary phase of culture, a radical chic, re-defined by now unforeseen events. Or it may prove prescient, and speak to the future, and become part of a canon. We can debate this but we don’t get to decide on an outcome now; future perspective may shine light in regions, that are for us, still in shadow.

Editorial Board,

Jeffrey Ackerman, Al Crichton, Daniel Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon

Visual Essay: Dan Mills

Light in the Dark
Works and statement by Dan Mills

Finding a moment of light within the darkness of poor human behavior is the role of the art of political satire. And the humor in great satire is a light in the dark for me.

Mirror Mirror

 

Artists such as Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828), James Gillray (1765 – 1815), Honoré Daumier (1808 – 1879), Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902), to name a few, were merciless in their biting critique of politicians of their time and of the political landscape in which they lived. They held no punches. They primarily used a visual vocabulary supplemented with minimal text to make statements better made in this genre than in words.

Tin Foil Hats: Trump and His Followers Shielding Themselves from Facts

 

And we live in a time with many remarkable political cartoonists and political artists who employ satire, too many to mention but a few, such as Enrique Chagoya (1953-), Signe Wilkinson (1959-), and Mike Luckovich (1960-). Like their forbears, they are all brilliant, all worth a look.

Donald J. Trump Family Portrait

 

Something comedic, that brings you to smile or laugh, brings a moment of light to your life. Many of us experience this in our life on a regular basis, the benefits of a shared joke or anecdote being interjected into conversation, into our day.


A work of political satire, however, is more complicated and subversive. It combines this lightness with the goal of tackling human flaws, bad behavior, even atrocities. Finding a moment of light within the darkness of poor human behavior is the role of the art of political satire.


The great works stay with you, their ideas and visual impact resonate. The most successful change viewers’ thinking, and have influenced society and even culture.



The political landscape in the recent primaries and elections provided considerable fodder for political satire. My contributions to this publication are in the form of digital image montages, and movies made with my digital montages and some audio clips. – Dan Mills

​Trump Leads an Angry Mob in Search of Monsters

 

INVITATION TO SUBMIT FOR SUMMER 2017 JOURNAL

INVITATION TO SUBMIT
FOR SUMMER 2017 JOURNAL

Narratives; Public and Private”

Are the stories in your work, or behind you work, of a personal nature, or are they in the commons? Are they old stories, myths, or topical ones? Or are they topical stories disguised as myths, or old stories that have a contemporary relevance? Are you an abstract painter using coded narratives, or are there stories behind abstract or cryptic works that the public will not know, but might feel or intuit?

The editorial board of The Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly invites members to submit your images and ideas for our upcoming SUMMER Issue:

You may submit up to 4 works. Word limit is 150 words. Please submit images as jpgs: high-resolution images, 150-300 dpi; the format should be at least 1000 pixels on the shortest side. Please label work with last name and title, and supply us with an image list which includes artist, title, year, medium, dimensions, and if required, the photo credit. Put Narratives; Public and Private” in the subject line and submit to umvalistings@gmail.com by June 1st deadline. MAJ will limit the “Members Submit” section to UMVA members who have not been published in the past year.

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Regarding images in the MAJ: It is the MAJ’s policy to request and then publish image credits. We will not publish images the submitter does not have the right to publish. However, we leave the question of photo credit to the discretion of the submitter when there is no required photo credit (photo by self, image ownership freely given, copyright with contract, copyright expired, work for hire, etc). This is particular to our article genre we have dubbed “visual essays” which are generally designed and submitted as complete PDFs by the author. In light of our policy and requests, it is to be assumed that any uncredited or unlabeled images are the author’s/submitter’s own images. By submitting to the MAJ, you are acknowledging respect for these policies.

Thank you,
MAJ Editorial Board

Spring 2017: Light in the Dark (archived Invitation to Submit)

INVITATION TO SUBMIT
FOR SPRING 2017 JOURNAL

(Please note the call for submissions has closed.)

Light in the Dark: Art As a Sane Voice in an Insane World

We encourage artists to use this opportunity to make and submit potent visual statements to address these strange times, whether it be through shining the light of truth into dark corners without or within; creating poetic visions of enlightenment or visual challenges to incite action or resistance.

Many of us have been shocked by this election, saddened, numbed, confused. everything we value will be under siege. What a wake-up call! So, how do we confront the darkness ahead? This JOURNAL has an important role to play. This is an arts journal, but it is also a community, a place to find and build community.

It is a place to share our responses to the world. We can give voice to what we and others are feeling, help to envision the future, start conversations, respond to the damaged soul of the world, heal ourselves, and in doing so, offer an example to others. We can turn to it for inspiration and light.

It is a personal decision as to how we respond. Each of us comes to these issues in a way that suits our individual personality and art practice. And, yet, it is imperative to remind ourselves of the South African notion of “Ubuntu” — I am myself because of who we all are. We exist and find identity only in relation, in sharing, in interconnectedness. We need to remember now that our work as artists affects the web of humanity. That is our strength and our responsibility.

The editorial board of The Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly invites members to submit your images and ideas for our upcoming Spring Issue: Light in the Dark: Art As a Sane Voice in an Insane World.

You may submit up to 4 works. Word limit is 150 words. Please submit images as jpgs: high-resolution images, 150-300 dpi; the format should be at least 1000 pixels on the shortest side. Please label work with last name and title, and supply us with an image list which includes artist, title, year, medium, dimensions, and if required, the photo credit. Put “Light in the Dark” in the subject line and submit to umvalistings@gmail.com by March 1st deadline. MAJ will limit the “Members Submit” section to UMVA members who have not been published in the past year.

Regarding images in the MAJ:

It is the MAJ’s policy to request and then publish image credits. We will not publish images the submitter does not have the right to publish. However, we leave the question of photo credit to the discretion of the submitter when there is no required photo credit (photo by self, image ownership freely given, copyright with contract, copyright expired, work for hire, etc). This is particular to our article genre we have dubbed “visual essays” which are generally designed and submitted as complete PDFs by the author. In light of our policy and requests, it is to be assumed that any uncredited or unlabeled images are the author’s/submitter’s own images. By submitting to the MAJ, you are acknowledging respect for these policies.

Thank you,
MAJ Editorial Board

Light in the Dark: Exhibition at CTN Gallery, April 7 – 29, 2017

Light in the Dark: Art As a Sane Voice in an Insane World

April 7- 29, 2017

Opening: Friday, April 7 during First Friday Art Walk. 

Many of us have been shocked, saddened, numbed and confused by the 2016 election and the unprecedented events that have followed in the country.  This group exhibition sponsored by the Maine Arts Journal and the Union of Maine Visual Artists features visual statements from artists responding to these strange times, whether it be through creating poetic visions of enlightenment or visual challenges to incite action or resistance.  Featured artists present, interpret, and react to the current state of the nation through a variety of media and subject matter.  In work that ranges from symbolic to satirical, these artists seek to give voice to what they and others are feeling in this divisive and dark moment. Though many do not find a bright spot at the end of the tunnel, they use their work to shine a light on what is happening and bring clarity to the chaos.  The exhibition was curated by Rachel McDonald, Gallery Director of PhoPa Gallery &  Maine Media Workshops and features painting, photography, and mixed media works by artists including Frankie Ahrens, Brendan Bullock, Matt Blackwell, Michael Branca, Crystal Cawley, Anita Clearfield, Kenny Cole, Jeannie Hutchins, Scott Minzy, Natasha Mayers, and Vivien Russe.

Kenny Cole, Salute, collage
Natasha Mayers, Mountain, acrylic, 2017,44×40
Brendan Bullock,,Police Officer, DNC, Philadelphia
Franklin Ahrens, mixed media on panel
Jeannie Hutchins, I Dream of Earth and Sky, photograph

 

Feature: Maine Artists Anonymous in Brooklyn

above: ad box 3

Eight Maine artists have made six paintings about immigration issues that are now hanging in public spaces in Brooklyn, in the six foot tall commercial advertisement boxes on the sides of bus shelters. They were excited by the opportunity to reach a wide and diverse audience about an issue especially pressing to New Yorkers. It is part of an artist/activist project inspired by Jordan Seiler’s PublicAdCampaign which creates new avenues for public dialogues in our shared public spaces. His project intends to incite participation and question outdoor advertising. .
This installation is part of a global call to action by Subvertisers International, a network of anti-advertising activists, for NYC#SubvertTheCity. Their purpose is to collectively reimagine what our cities and societies could be, taking creativity into the streets to support the struggle for social, economic and climate justice, as well as for human rights and dignity for all.
PublicAdCampaign and the PublicAccess project
http://www.publicadcampaign.com/

ad box 1
ad box 2
ad box 4
ad box 5

 

ad box 6

Natasha Mayers: A Personal Collection of Post-Election Images

In the spirit of the Spring Journal’s theme (Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World), I present the viewer with this personal collection of images assembled since the election. Since we need the relief of laughter amid the daily dose of shock, they tend toward the hilarious, but they shine some light of truth on these times.           Natasha Mayers

Women’s March DC
Trump signs

Spam Trump
LeontiosTheron/Reddit via Imgur
Brooklyn ad box
Lunch
Hank Brusselback, Fascism comes wafting
Fallopian I am upset!
Women’s March NYC
Trump tornado
Mars, Ozge-Samanci
Washington Monument, from Resist! at Women’s March,DC
It’s raining, from Resist! at Women’s March,DC
Women’s March, Augusta, David with Trump
Women’s March,Portland
Women’s March, NYC
Women’s March, NYC, Grope
Greenpeace-resist-banner

Nasty Maine Women Artists by Edgar Allen Beem

Six artists explain the impact of politics on their art

Most Sundays, you will find artist Abby Shahn standing on the Margaret Chase Smith Bridge in downtown Skowhegan with members of the Maine chapter of CODEPINK: Women for Peace. Whether the issue is war, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter or the fear of fascism in the wake of the 2016 election, Shahn and a handful of others are out there on the bridge with their signs witnessing for peace and justice.

Abby Shahn is one of the most dedicated artist activists I know. She is a very political person, yet her art is not what I would call “political art” in that it is rarely polemical or didactic. I, too, am a very political person, but I am not particularly interested in political, protest or propaganda art if all it says is “Oppose this! Support that!”

As such, for this Light in the Dark: Art as a Sane Voice in an Insane World issue, I have elected to talk with six very politically aware artists whose art internalizes, embodies, manifests and expresses their social concerns to varying degrees and in ways ranging from the topical to the philosophical. They are, in order of appearance, Abby Shahn, Barbara Sullivan, Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Alison Hildreth and Lauren Fensterstock.

Abby Shahn

“I come at it sideways,” says Shahn of the way politics and social issues influence her work. “It’s political but at a side angle. Not topical.”

Abby Shahn, “Ghost 19” 15 x 11, gouache on paper

Shahn’s powerful and colorful abstractions suggest an emotional response to experience and sometimes use titles that clue the viewer in to their sources.

“Much of my art is inspired by political events, but it’s not political art  in the sense of trying to move people into action,” Shahn writes in a new statement for her website.   “I think of myself more as a witness.”

Shahn explains that “if I name an abstract painting ‘Katrina,’ I have offered a reference point, a point of entry. Hopefully, my abstract expressions and impressions will then have greater meaning for people. I hope to leave behind me some record of how it felt to have lived through these times. I hope to ‘bear witness’.”

Shahn returned to oil paints after years of working primarily in tempera following the election of George W. Bush. The heavier, darker nature of the medium seemed more suited to the times and her state of mind.

Abby Shahn, “Ghost 23” 15 x 11, gouache on paper

“We all lived through some terrible times, with war, natural disaster and political shenanigans. As I write this we are still experiencing the tsunami that followed those events. I’m not sure where my paintings will go from here. I always count on them to lead me.”

Where the act of painting has led Shahn most recently is to a series of “Ghost” paintings in which the “ghosts” are as much revenants of brushstrokes as shades of human beings. The vague figures could be victims of war and natural disaster, the dead haunting the living, messengers from the great beyond, the ectoplasm of spiritual energy or just marks on a surface.

The ambivalence in Shahn’s art may well reflect the tension she feels between being at peace in rural Maine and witnessing for peace in a troubled world.

“I’m in the studio,” she says as we talk. “There are trees all around. I just ordered my seeds. I have grandchildren I really love. My life is good here, but the world sucks.”

Barbara Sullivan
  Artists tend to be progressive, open-minded individuals. Having written about art in Maine for 40 years, I have met hundreds of artists, only two or three of whom seemed to hold conservative political views. So the unexpected election of Donald Trump has hit the art world hard. The sense of disbelief is pervasive and the outrage palpable. The first and foremost manifestation of this outrage was the Women’s March on Washington, a national show of solidarity prompted by Trump’s virulent sexism. The fact that all six artists discussed here are women is not coincidental.

  “We are a force in ourselves,” says Barbara Sullivan, Abby Shahn’s Solon neighbor, of the power of women to address injustice.

Barbara Sullivan is best known for her fresco reliefs, usually ordinary household objects rendered in a medium that merges painting and sculpture. She hadn’t worked in oil for many years until she started the portrait series she calls “Nasty Maine Women Artists.” The list of subjects currently runs to more than 50 artists, among them Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Lois Dodd, Yvonne Jacquette, Elena Kubler, Jocelyn Lee and Susan Webster.

Barbara Sullivan, “Kathy Bradford,“ Oil on wood Panel, 8″ X10″, 2017, photo credit Jay York
Barbara Sullivan, “Susan Webster“, Oil on wood Panel, 8″ X10″, 2017, photo credit Jay York
Barbara Sullivan, “Lois Dodd“, Oil on wood Panel, 8″ X10″, 2017, photo credit Jay York

 

The portraits are all being done from photographs supplied by the artists. In her portrait, Susan Webster of Deer Isle is wearing an apron with the word “Nasty” on it, one of the garments she made after Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.”

Sullivan’s “Nasty Maine Women Artists” portraits will be exhibited in July at Turtle Gallery on Deer Isle.

“I have been a maker since I was a kid,” says Sullivan, explaining how her art helps her navigate through life. “I feel it saved my life in a number of ways. I was one of nine kids, so making art gave me my own space and my own identity in hard times.”

Dozier Bell

  There are plenty of anti-Trump posts on Barbara Sullivan’s Facebook page just as there are on Dozier Bell’s. Bell’s strategy for responding aesthetically is quite different however.

Dozier Bell’s art, always dark and brooding, tends to read like a visual wayfinding, the artist locating herself in time and space and memory through subtle imagery often marked with devices such as poles, grids and crosshairs. There is an implied element of threat and anxiety in  many of her paintings.

Dozier Bell, “Passage”, acrylic on panel, 14×17, 2016

“To the degree that political developments are environmental threats, they’re like other external circumstances that impinge on the internal world of my art,” writes Bell in an email. “Politics are personal relationships writ large, and the effects of public policy on the natural environment, personal safety, ability to function in the world, to communicate and be heard, all feed into much older existential fault lines in my psyche. Some of the fault lines are amplified by current events, others are stabilized by the fact that actual dangers in the outer world are now mirroring an internal sense of threat against which there has been no way to take definitive action until now.”

Bell’s art is rooted in the memories and dreams that shaped her sense of reality. Her art evokes a psychic landscape that is far more foreign and foreboding than her immediate Waldoboro surroundings.

Dozier Bell, “Barbican,” acrylic on panel, 4×10, 2016

The acrylic painting “Barbican” from 2016, for instance, depicts the remains of the outer defense of a castle or walled city as the sun rises over a ruined land. “Passage,” also from last year, conjures turbulent waters passing between the steep walls of the cliffs that divide the landscape. While it is tempting to read these images as metaphors of American dysfunction, Bell is never that literal.

And given how ardently Bell was anticipating, as was I, the celebration of America’s first woman president, it is easy to imagine that she must be beside herself at the triumph of ignorance, racism and sexism that destroyed that hope. But the artist says that, in strange way, the election has given focus to free floating dread.

“I have felt much steadier since the election,” says Bell. “When you have been driven by the phantom of an event all your life, then you realize it was a metaphor for something else. All of my work comes from a time of first experiences, first impressions when I was little. Trump is the perfect Bogey Man, right?”

Katherine Bradford

  Katherine Bradford’s paintings are, if anything, even more subliminal when it comes to social content than Bell’s, though the painting reproduced here might suggest otherwise.

Bradford, a founding member of UMVA in 1975, divides her time between Brunswick and New York where in the past year she had highly successful exhibitions at Canada and Sperone Westwater Gallery. She was also one of the stars of the #PUSSYPOWER show at David & Schweitzer Contemporary in Brooklyn in December and January.

#PUSSYPOWER featured the works of more than 40 women dealing with the female body and was inspired by, in the words of the gallery press release, “a campaign filled with rhetoric of body-shaming and brags of sexual assault, and an election night that revealed the depths of misogyny.”

Kathy Bradford, “Older Woman Superhero”, 24x 24

Bradford’s paintings of late have featured swimmers and superheroes, but the acrylic on canvas in the Brooklyn show is entitled “Supreme” and, in Bradford’s signature blunt style, pictured two women in judicial robes. Since there are currently three women on the U.S. Supreme Court, one might wonder what happened to Elena Kagan, but, as Bradford explains, she was not really painting the women of the court.

“I don’t paint from ideas. I find the image in the process of painting,” Bradford says. “I work with themes and characters. People standing up is one of them. I had little heads on top of black robes and I saw that one of them could be [Sonia] Sotomayor and one could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I made the painting into that and added the word ‘Supreme,’ but I was not intending to be political in any way. Is it political or is it a celebration? I did it way before the election.”

Kathy Bradford,”Supreme Court,” 24×20

While “Supreme” was timely in a fortuitous way, Bradford’s enchanted existential dramas are rarely direct reflections of society.

“I want my paintings to be about large themes not topical themes,” says Bradford. “Danger is the human condition, not just a political crisis of the moment. I want a kind of epic nature to what I’m doing.”
Alison Hildreth

“Subconsciously, things creep into your art, the angst, the drang, the fear,” echoes Portland artist Alison Hildreth. “For me, it’s not overt at all. I’ve never wanted to be that literal. What’s hidden, what we don’t see is what I want in my art.”

Allison Hildreth, “Migrations”
watercolor, ink and graphite, 80″ x 37″, Shoshannah White photo
Allison Hildreth, “Migration 3”
oil on linen
55” x 30″
Shoshannah White photo

One of the ways political discord, dissonance and divisiveness play out in Hildreth’s work is in the priority she places on connectivity, the hidden wholeness of nature. Her painting, prints and drawings feature tangles of root systems, honeycombs, fungus and phytoplankton blooms.

“Paintings,” says Hildreth, “are little events that connect to other events.”

Allison Hildreth, “Migration I”, oil on linen, 55 x 30, Shoshannah White photo

In the human sphere, Hildreth has been inspired by the ways in which natural disasters and political violence displace people, creating global population migrations as ecosystems and geopolitical entities become uninhabitable. The long, vertical hanging drawings of her “Emerging Cartographies” series explore an abstract topography based on diagrams of train stations and fortifications.

“We are so driven by fear,” says Hildreth. “He [Trump] can prey on people’s fear and our tribal natures emerge. It’s not a good thing, but it’s what we revert to.”

As a member of the tribe of artists, Hildreth takes refuge from the political storm in her studio.

“For me, just getting studio time is so important, because it’s something positive,” she says.

Lauren Fensterstock

The studio may be where Hildreth works out her creative response to destructive times, but she was also among the more than 10,000 who answered the call of Portland’s Women’s March, as was Lauren Fensterstock.

“I see being an artist as a political act,” says Fensterstock, too busy preparing for seven shows in 2017 to stop working as she talks. “In a corporate culture of conglomerates it is difficult to have an unmediated voice. I strongly do not make art for my own pleasure. I make art for dialogue.”

Lauren Fensterstock is one of the hottest young artists in the country and her home studio in Portland is a hive of activity. Past work has focused on historical gardens created out of black and white cut paper in an antique process called quilling. These days, Fensterstock’s studio is filled with boxes of seashells and mirrors that will become black aggregates, encrustations of natural material surrounding blown glass that provide a dark vision of the world.

“Man creating systems and organizing the world is very political,” says Fensterstock, whose outrage at the election is second to none. “How man talks about the environment is political. “

Lauren Fensterstock, The Order of Things”, wood, and mixed media, 2016

 

Writing of Fensterstock’s “The Order of Things” installation in New York, critic Dan Kany observed that “What Fensterstock is showing us with ‘The Order of Things’ is not what we know, but what things look like before we have reeled them in with labels and encyclopedic classification.”

This visual epistemology of the primordial is like a freeing of nature from its cultural straitjacket. Fensterstock is artist-as-shaman. During a residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, she created the hand-held dark glass mirror that was featured in “Scrying,” an exhibition in March at VOLTA NY, an invitational fair of solo art projects. Scrying, she explains, is the art of divining the future through mirrors.

Lauren Fensterstock, “Scrying”, (hand mirror), glass, 2017

For the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida, Fensterstock created a shell, resin and mirror installation entitled “The Holophusicon,” a title taken from an 18th century cabinet of curiosities that billed itself as the sum of the world’s knowledge of the natural world.

“I see art as a physical manifestation of philosophy. I see making art as a touchstone, a mapping of an ethical and philosophical world,” says Fensterstock.

“These are important moments of resistance and protest, but it’s important that we remember what we are fighting for – beauty, freedom of experience, acknowledgment of history, aspirational views of our future.”

The work of all serious art is the search for truth, beauty and meaning. Perhaps that is why the artists of Maine and America take such umbrage at these dark days of lies, ugliness and meaninglessness.