Véronique Plesch – Introduction

What is Maximalism exactly? The term seems popular in interior decorator-speak, but what about in art? Is it the opposite of Minimalism, a recognized and by now canonical movement? Does that term insinuate a slightly irreverent and tongue-in-cheek response to it? After all, proponents of a minimalist approach tend to be very opinionated—if not out-right dogmatic. Take Ad Reinhardt, who preached (I’m tempted to say “ranted”) in “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” (1957): “[t]he more uses, relations and ‘additions’ a painting has, the less pure it is. The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is.”

As the artwork and essays in this issue show, Maximalism alerts you not only to an esthetic of abundance—or even, of overabundance—but, most importantly, to a creative process and to a set of formal strategies, along with choices and actions, such as paring down or adding, simplifying or complicating—but also, paring down and adding, simplifying and complicating.

This is a challenge the artist depicted in Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s Better is the Ready seems to be up to as she strides decisively, her materials both decoration (she is bedecked in tubes, pencils, brushes, and other tools) and cargo. The title signals preparedness (the fact that it’s painted on the panes of a wooden door, evokes doors opening for the resolute artist). Olivieri explains that in her biographical allegories “the complexity of the subject matter . . . gets expressed in a density of painted excitement” and images are layered with “text, emotions, and experiences.”

Katherine Porter discusses works in which “ferocity and passion . . . did not result in chaos.” One may wonder: how can such volatile impulses not lead to chaos? For Porter, “[t]he geometry of the grid becomes time and weight.” Color and shape allows her to control motion and speed (for instance, a “muted color is meant to slow things down.”)

Joe Haroutunian talks about rhythm—in music and in his works. Listening to music while painting spurs his creativity and rhythmic calligraphic patterns take over the surface of his paintings. But the freedom suggested by the reference to jazz and its improvisational modus operandi is nevertheless wrangled: Haroutunian explains that he sets “limits on the free flow of the paint” and that layering provides “a sense of stability and organization.”

For Amy Ray, painting was a response to the pandemic’s chaos, and mark making a way “to create order.” The early spring abstractions, in which overall patterning dominated, gave way to summer works inspired by the ocean and in particular by seaweed, executed in the aptly fluid medium of ink wash. For Ray as well rhythm plays a fundamental role as organizing principle, and the patterns she discovers in the flowing and exuberant life on the coast “make sense of it all.”

The collaborative work of Morgen Berrien (Kelly Morgen Christopher and Carl Berrien Smith), brings a balance between the two artists (“We are a good balance for each other. Carl polarizes. Kelly blends”); it also strives toward a balance between chaos and order. Their “multilayered narratives” are the product of a layering of interventions as the two artists take turns working on each piece, bringing a more rational (and orderly) approach after “impulsive beginnings” drawn with their eyes closed.

In a conversation with Véronique Plesch, James Fangbone discusses his assemblage work, in particular the creation of his maximalist Shrine. Fang talks about how he collects and combines found objects—but also, and very importantly, how he constantly revises their placement and generates ever new meaning and surprise. This work of accumulation is about transformation and one is reminded of the etymology of “invention,” from the Latin invenire, to discover.

Collecting also plays an important role for Jimmy Viera, one of the artists Kathy Weinberg discusses in her essay, along with Greg Jamie, Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, and Casey Jex Smith, all of whom create “detailed and richly embroidered” visual worlds. Asking how to manage complexity, Weinberg envisions a reciprocal relationship between complexity and “limits or structures to contain or support the totality.” Complexity and control balance each other, and singular parts synecdochally relate to the ensemble. When one looks “closely, with open mind and the right kind of eyes,” one might experience what Weinberg terms “the Overview Effect,” when “boundaries fall away.”

Carl Little writes about Australian-born Joanna Logue, who now lives on Mount Desert Island. Logue paints the woods of Acadia National Park, favoring spots with bodies of water that she renders in flowing and lush impasto. We are invited to share in the painter’s sylvan experience as we look down and get engulfed by her “dynamic accumulation of marks, scrapes, and scars, some made with a trowel” that “take up every inch of the surface, from edge to edge, corner to corner.” Remarkably, no horizon line is visible in Logue’s paintings, but the sky is reflected in the water.

Specularity’s immersive power is central to Sarah Sze’s project for Portland’s Congress Square Park, Shattered Sphere. Ed Beem recounts the process that culminated in 2016 with the selection of Sze for this important commission, which unfortunately “has not yet materialized.” In her proposal, Sze explains that the reflections on the glass shards are intended to “echo the openness and connectivity” of the site while “permanently encapsulating a universal yet ephemeral moment in time.” Beem notes that time is a central theme in Sze’s oeuvre, “specifically how humans assemble information and recall memories.”

Veronica Cross writes from New Orleans and affirms “The Importance of Taking Up Space” as she considers the city’s maximalist visual culture and traditions. Cross takes us on a tour of artists’ living spaces and artwork, shrines in churches, and of course Mardi Gras celebrations, paying special attention to instances in which Maximalism—along with a healthy dose of in-your-face performativity—empowers under-represented groups. How can we not agree with the concluding statement by one of the artists that “more is more, less is lame”?

Sarah Bouchard chats with art collector Browne Goodwin, who recently moved to Maine. As Goodwin talks about his collecting philosophy, Bouchard marvels how organized his collection is. Although we have a rich accumulation of artwork of all kinds, it is handled with great attention and generosity as Goodwin carefully documents the works and shares them with educational institutions; reminding us of the etymology of the verb to curate, to care.

Jane Bianco pays a tribute to Ruth DeYoung Kohler II, who passed last November. Bianco worked at the Kohler Foundation and at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (named after Ruth’s grandfather), where Ruth Kohler served as director from 1972 to 2016. The JMKAC’s mission is to preserve the work of “vernacular artists,” many of whom created living environments profoundly maximalist in nature. Bianco evokes the sense of wonder she experienced working surrounded by the overflowing creativity of these artists and invites us into the abode of one of them, Mary Nohl.

Gianne Conard reports on a “a very spirited” virtual meeting that the Mid-Coast Salon held last November in which Conard, David Estey, architect Michael Corden, artists Kris Engman, Bob Richardson, Jack Silverio, Carol Sloane, and Lesia Sochor pondered what Maximalism means to them. The participants discussed much more than the term, as they questioned “-isms” and taxonomies and their relevance for them as artists. Ultimately, the Salon’s conversation ended up being about the creative process and “how one looks at any artist’s work, how the artist sees it, and the complexity that can go into even the most apparently simple . . . work.”

Gathering a series of historical works that display horror vacui, Véronique Plesch argues that, despite what modernism would have us believe, “more is better,” and that the term itself should be understood as a formal strategy deployed to successfully convey meaning and fulfill specific functions. Compositions brimming with details can pack a maximum of narrative details or purposely convey a sense of chaos and anxiety—in other words, organization or disorganization is a conscious, and most consequential, choice. Among horror vacui’s manifestations, patterning is an effective manner to engage the viewer, and infuses with significance every inch of a surface, affirming life while activating space.

Susan Larsen writes about “Whims,” Leo Rabkin’s “last artistic project,” born from “a box of old postcards and piles of decorative trinkets,” last remnants of the expansive collection he had parted with after his wife’s death. Starting in 2012, in a newly pared-down environment, Rabkin used this flotsam and jetsam accumulated over the years in works of mail art. For Rabkin, an artist who “valued contradiction, process, and the psychologically complex,” surprise was the rule of the game: surprise in the combinations of materials, and surprise for the friend who would receive the randomly selected Whim.

MAJ poetry editor Betsy Sholl pays tribute to Lee Sharkey, who passed away last October, with a selection of six prose poems inspired by Samuel Bak’s oneiric—and maximalist—paintings. As Betsy Sholl writes, Sharkey’s poems echo Bak’s artworks, as they too “concern catastrophe, survival, and transformation” (or Transfiguration, the title of one of Bak’s works reproduced here). The poems and the paintings alike balance chaos and beauty—beauty found in the midst of chaos. Bak’s paintings are grounded in his childhood experience of the Holocaust and yet, in Sharkey’s memorable phrase there is “[a]bundance in rubble.” Remarkably, “abundance,” despite its pairing with “rubble,” steadfastly resists the loss of its positive connotations and remains life-affirming.

Stuart Kestenbaum’s piece could be seen as a meditation on the decluttering of one’s brain, following the advice from Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh of doing one thing at a time. As Kestenbaum thinks about art making, he evokes themes that run through this issue: the tension between focusing and letting one’s mind wander, order and chaos, organization and disorganization, what’s planned and what just happens. The “black out poem” he includes in his piece is the result of a balancing act between editing—most of the text is crossed out—and adding thick black lines and a stamped word. The stamped letters spell a precise and yet allusive figure of speech (“METAPHOR”) while the words that have been spared suggest a process that is about to commence (“going to start comparing”). We might wonder: what if we applied razor-sharp focus to the tangents we take?

Our readers will find a link to Robert Katz’s video The Sculpture Studio 2020, a memoryscape of sorts, recounting Katz’s past 40 years teaching at UMA and movingly expressing his passion for teaching and pride in his students. It is a polyphonic and often humorous collage of images of students, the studio and its signage, tools and materials, books, countless details of bulletin boards with reproductions, clippings, and quotes, and of course student artwork—in progress or completed and in all kinds of materials.

We also include a report of the virtual meetings that visual arts educators from the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative organized to fight the isolation brought by the pandemic (“Open Art Teachers Studio: Quarantine Edition”).

In our “Members’ Showcase,” 17 artists contribute to our theme. Martha Miller draws inspiration from “religion, astrology, and myths” and their drive “to make order out of chaos, and to find patterns and meaning in the seemingly random.” Elaine McMichael explains how in her lush and vibrant depictions of nature, choice of medium and painting technique aim “to show the life force necessary to manage the chaos.” Leslie Woods’s recent paintings are similarly joyous in their raucous color scheme and exuberant patterning, but, as she explains, they represent a complete departure from her previous work. As she was mourning her husband, friends, and relatives, “rhythm and pattern” became a means “to organize chaos into design,” while “requiring a concentration that morphed into meditation.” Alan Clark shares earlier works, all characterized by vigorous and all-encompassing patterning. In a watercolor titled La Semilla, kaleidoscopic worlds are contained within a mere seed. If for many of our contributors patterning brings order, in Joanne Tarlin’s “abstract landscapes” the natural is disturbed by the man-made, and ethereal expanses are interrupted by “geometric shapes and patterns.” Brian David Downs vertiginous drawn “visual allegories” are textbook maximalist visions and some of his titles possess a matching dizzying discursive quality. Downs treads the line between painstaking precision and disorienting confusion, and Dave Wade similarly balances opposites: at times seeking clarity by paring his images down while welcoming “a need to invite in a little chaos” and even “raise a little Hell.” We are made privy to Stephanie Berry’s mind during a sleepless night—a cacophonic clutter of thoughts—while in her painting Random Thoughts, diaphanous colored surfaces similarly clash and merge into each other. Discordance and stridency are also central to Julia Baugh’s Easily Startled, a large-scale assemblage whose heterogeneous materials, shapes, and colors collide to offer a commentary on “pin-up history.” For Gail Skudera, weaving is a process “in itself, excessive and redundant” in which freedom and rules, chaos and order are in constant conversation. As she integrates photographs, Skudera adds yet another dichotomy, that of presence and absence, along with the idea of piecing together what has been cut apart. Mildred Bachrach also incorporates fragmentary photographs, which she repeats in a grid-like composition, “both chaotic and orderly at the same time,” which prevents the beholder’s gaze from finding a “resting place.” If for Bachrach repetition doesn’t lead to a quiet mind, for Lin White, reiterated elements “may fall into order or disorder” while being perceived in different ways up close or from a distance. White hopes these changes in viewpoint will surprise the spectator and Robin Brooks’s layered paintings, filled with “jazzy energy,” similarly invite “the viewer to wonder, notice, and make discoveries.” The artist herself can be rewarded by such feelings as was Ann Tracy when she created a mail art card, on which she felt “compelled to cover every square inch . . . with some kind of mark.” The resulting explosively energetic image turned out to be “strangely soothing,” perhaps, as Tracy muses, because of the sense of agency it provided her in this time of uncertainty. Del Cain blends spontaneity and control, as he embraces the aleatory nature of dripped (and thrown) paint, while introducing control in the paint flow by tipping the canvas. Stephen St. John also starts with accidental marks, made with rollers and brushes, which contain “textures and patterns” and which lead to more shapes. For him too, polar opposites meet: layering and removing, complicating and simplifying. John Ripton’s four photographs address the unending cycle of chaos and creation, thus expressing how the two notions are inextricably linked.

We finally have our usual reports by ARRT! and LumenARRT! and read about the latest film in the Maine Masters series, on Carlo Pittore. Pat and Tony Owen open their quarterly excavation of the UMVA archives, opposing our “complicated times” to the simplicity inherent in art and the need “to create something that is distilled from the complications of the greater world.” They go on to evoke the simplicity of the ways in which UMVA operated in its early days and to contrast it to the realities of our contemporary artworld. Finally, you will find the report from the Portland chapter of the UMVA and a letter from the Union of Maine Visual Artists Board of Directors in support of employees at the Portland Museum of Art “in their desire and efforts to unionize and collectively bargain with PMA’s management.”

 

Image at top: MAJ Winter 2021 cover (Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, Unexpected Odyssey, oil on panel, 46 x 60 inches, 2018.)