From the editors:
We are living in a historic time, marked for us by events moving at a speed that is difficult to comprehend. When we selected our spring theme, Macro/Micro, we could not have foreseen how those two words could describe, so succinctly, where we are now, as a culture, a country, a world.
We believe that our issue will resonate with all of you. In the midst of our confusion, fear and uncertainty about our collective well-being and the health of our family, our community, and our nation, we offer you a hopeful assortment of artists’ work and words. Our community of artists, visionaries, innovators, and adaptable thinkers are keeping a light on to help guide each other through a dark time and uncertain future. The Maine Arts Journal extends a place of refuge where the creative spirit is alive and well. If ever there was a time in need of vision, inspiration, resilience and creativity, this is it. The arts can help carry us through.
MAJ Editorial Board: Natasha Mayers, Nora Tryon, Véronique Plesch, Kathy Weinberg, and Betsy Sholl (poetry editor)
An Introduction to the Spring Issue
Leonardo da Vinci died on 2 May 1519 and for the past year a slew of exhibitions and events marked the 500th anniversary of his death. Although the Renaissance artist is never directly mentioned by the artists and writers in this issue, Macro/Micro is a profoundly Leonardesque topic. The sketchbooks of this true Renaissance man, or, as they would say then, a “uomo universale” (a universal man), show that for him, the most fundamental activity was thinking, and, in particular, trying to understand nature.
Central to his intellectual endeavor was the theory of the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm, which led him to declare that “nature is only a giant human being.” Leonardo drew in order to study all facets of the natural world, from the very small to the very large. Whether considering a small flower or the movement of clouds, what Leonardo was after was to grasp the general pattern and to understand the organizing principles and the forces at play.
A recurring theme in many of the essays in this issue is the idea of a negotiation between the macro and the micro. Dozier Bell evokes the “challenge”of conveying “expansive views and a sense of limitless space” in a very small and intimate format. Central to her quest is another negotiation, that between observable reality and mental image and concept.
When Maggie Foskett started photographing minute details from the vegetal, animal, and even mineral world, intense magnification revealed expansive realms invisible to the naked eye. Cynthia Hyde recounts Maggie Foskett’s life-long fascination with nature and how her quest to unlock its mysteries led her to dive deeper into it, using x-rays and cliché verre. In her airy and spacious compositions, we find a layering of elements that suggests a descent to the inside of organisms.
The movement from the visible to both the very large and the very small is central to Joel Babb’s reflection, as is suggested by the link to Charles and Ray Eames’s film, Powers of Ten. What’s compelling in the movie is the seamless movement that ties the visible to the very large and the very small, not seen in opposition but as part of a continuum—a prodigiously large one! It is also about relationships, as the subtitle makes clear: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. How does a small insect see the world, ponders Joel Babb as he sees a wasp flying about a vast landscape. Later in his essay, Babb describes his attempts to capture nature “with the intimacy of the ‘wasp’s eye view’ of the ground.” Macro/Micro is also about correspondences: Babb, for instance, notes the similarities between the forms of clouds and “the forms which the violence of surf piling into my cove was making.”
For Meg Chase and Freddy LaFage, the notion of continuum (linking the very small and the very large) is also central. There is a “synergy” (as Chase says) in the different aspects of their lives—as artists, farmers, business owners, gallerists, parents, etc. For Chase, the outdoors are her “summer studio” and her paintings reflect her “immersion in [her] farm life.” For LaFage, also at stake is a quest for balance in their different pursuits, which take place “all in the same building” while he seeks to make “the individual” and “the universal” coexist in his art. For him, this dichotomy is “a way in” and thus not a contradiction but a fruitful interaction.
For Stephen Burt, whose Bright Horizon echoes Leonardo’s studies, nature is “the locus of [his] attention and practice.” He nevertheless constantly treads the line between what is real and what is imagined, grounding his work on close observation while creating “a kind of reality rich with analogies,” the result of a “transmutation of the everyday into the otherworldly.” Just like for Leonardo, for Burt as well drawing is akin to thinking: sketching sets free “an image in the mind” and allows him to gain focus on the subject he’s tackling, a process that involves a movement from small sketches to a much larger finished product. There is also a movement from dark to light, expressed in his use of chiaroscuro. Here too we are reminded of Leonardo, for whom darkness preceded light, and shapes—and thoughts—emerged from darkness. Burt’s essay finds a special resonance in this time of pandemic, when he explains that “[m]uch of my recent work is a meditation on the sharp edges of ignorance, highlighting the very real results of environmental abuse we are harvesting—drought, famine, war, pestilence, and all the other attendant miseries of humanity.”
For Meg Brown Payson as well, “each new painting emerges from the same chaotic conditions,” speaking to her “of the unpredictable complexity and instability of meaningful order in the world, but also of the inevitable, if temporary, moment of finding it.” Her intensely layered works are “a metaphor for both the emergence principles of creation” and the “human mind/painter’s compulsion to order as a mirroring of self-organization in physics and biology.” Carl Little explains that Payson’s art is about her relation to a place: hence her depictions of the Maine landscape with a figure “embedded” in it or referring to the body and the clothes that enclose it. The body provides scale to a landscape, while space, as Payson explains, touches our “skin like a robe.” As a result, her vision goes against the grain of the picture plane as a window from which space opens up but also against that of the modernist flat surface, for it becomes, as Little puts it, “an inhabited space.” The viewer is invited to inhabit these spaces as her large pieces engulf you. Asked to comment on the issue’s theme, Payson explains that she strives to have compositions that work viewed from far away and up close, encouraging the beholder to “shift from seeing the telescopic and the microscopic” in her art. So, once again the consideration of macro and micro leads to addressing not just artistic creation, but also thought processes and Payson evokes the relationship “between the encultured mind and the wild world” and references Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of perception.
In an interview with Sarah Bouchard, Philip Brou talks about some of his works, and through them, about larger themes of white privilege. The evocative power of his paintings is the focus of Bouchard’s reading of his works and of their allusions to the Ku Klux Klan, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and St. Anthony of Padua. Brou discusses his stylistic choices: for instance, his lack of visible brushwork, this staple of “heroic” abstract expressionism (and, I should add, its very macho posturing), and his materials. For Brou, the artwork is a reflection of the artist’s relationship to the world, echoing bigger issues.
Jane Bianco writes about Eliot Porter and how “[h]e understood cellular and crystalline networks, surface tensions, chemical, mechanical and evolutionary changes causing structural and optical nuances.” This quest for the pattern behind the forces at play in nature aligns with Leonardo’s life-long interests and also with those of another polymath, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose 1917 book On Growth and Form, proved to be remarkably influential in many circles, well beyond biology. Bianco stresses the groundbreaking nature of Porter’s work and his pioneering color nature photographs. Here too it becomes clear that embracing the macro and the micro leads one, as do Porter’s photographs, “to consider broader concepts of interconnections between regional, continental, global environments—their effects upon one another and humankind’s impacts overall.” For Porter, as for many of the artists who address our theme, curiosity is the fundamental impetus behind a descent into micro and ascent into macro—his works are indeed “photographic records of discovery.”
Curiosity also fuels the work of Amanda Lilleston, both as a printmaker and a teacher. With a background in biology, Lilleston sets out to understand biological processes and the gap between physical reality and the conventions of scientific representation. This dual training makes her ideally fit to teach liberal arts students with multiple majors, often combining arts, humanities, and sciences. Making connections—that’s what micro/macro is about—is essential to her teaching. In a recent conversation, Lilleston described the working methods she developed and her aim to convey the idea of “the human body as a complex ecosystem” (she has a series called Somatic Landscapes) in which elements visible to the naked eye, drawn from anatomy and botany, are combined with others that are the product of dissection and/or of microscopic magnification.
The same scientific curiosity, drive, and attention appears in the works of Hyman Bloom, whose retrospective exhibition at the MFA is reviewed by Kathy Weinberg. Weinberg compares Bloom’s work to that of “a naturalist or scientist, on a journey through life cataloging experience with an encyclopedic eye.” She adds that “[h]e revealed the inner life of his subjects simultaneously with their outward appearance.” That a visual expression can be a form of mental reflection is also fundamental for Bloom. Elaine de Kooning famously declared that Bloom, like Grunewald or Rembrandt, “seems to think with his brush.” Interestingly in de Kooning’s 1950 essay, a section is dedicated to “The painting: Growth and Change”—echoing the title of D’Arcy Thompson’s book mentioned above and suggesting a pictorial morphogenesis.
In our UMVA Member’s Showcase, Krisanne Baker recounts her connection and dedication to the sea and how in recent years science has informed her artwork. She too, grounds her practice in curiosity, and the microscope is a tool that leads her to “the delight of discovery and wonder.” Magnification reveals the minute plankton and phytoplankton which inhabit the ocean’s vastness. For Baker as for many others in this issue, such discoveries are to be shared, among other things through teaching.
That macro and micro are always in conversation is made clear by Ragna Bruno, who explains that although the macro tends to be a starting point for her approach, “Macro and Micro are always present and factor into my decisions while I’m working.”
Donald Mallow shares four watercolors and gouaches titled From the Ledge, based on drawings he made of “minute elements” observed as stone was blasted during the construction of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
John Ripton captures people in their environments—as varied as Marrakesh, Haiti, and Manhattan. As his camera focuses on the individuals and their lives, the photographer yet keeps his distance.
C.E. Morse takes us on his hunt for the remarkable textures revealed by his zooming onto the surface of old cars. His title (“Beyond Recognition”) discloses how close views reveal unknown vistas.
In our poetry section, the domestic micro—looking for pinking shears—meets the national and even global macro as Pat Ranzoni celebrates a dear friend, a life-long “fighter for Equality and Peace.” For Keith Dunlap, just like for Joel Babb, being on a spot high above the landscape makes him think of the cosmos’s vastness.
In our “Insight/Incite” section, Ellen Bowman writes about teaching expressive arts therapy in schools and credits her mother, Ruth Bowman, for her career path. In this essay we can see how the playful meets the cognitive: for Ruth Bowman, painting was “playing on paper”. Ellen notes that her parents referred to their experiences as “forms of exploration.”
Besides our theme, this issue contains much more:
Edgar Allen Beem‘s article reprinted from the Phoenix, discusses the Portland Museum of Art’s decision to hold a triennial open to other countries instead of a biennial dedicated to Maine artists. We follow Beem’s article with thoughtful reactions by 22 members of Maine’s art community.
Mark Wethli, David Raymond, Richard Brown Lethem, Duncan Hewitt, and other friends pay tribute to Duane Paluska, who passed last January.
In our UMVA section, Pat and Tony Owen continue their exploration of the Union’s archives. They reflect upon the 1990’s tense climate around censorship, the arts, and public funding, and consider today’s situation. We also find news from the Portland chapter, including photos of the opening reception of Titi de Baccarat’s exhibition Who Is It?, and recent activities of ARRT! and LumenARRT!.
In a reprint of one of his “HiLo Art” columns for The Free Press, Alan Crichton recounts a recent trip to New York City. Crichton’s intense and joyful gallery- and museum-going takes on a new and poignant dimension in the current health crisis.
Indeed, as we wrap up this issue, the spread of COVID-19 is forcing museums and galleries to close and so we seized the opportunity to share with our readers art from a few exhibitions that had opened shortly before the lockdown. We get to see snippets from two exhibitions at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art: Skirting the Line, which presents paintings from five women artists who tread the line between abstraction and figuration, and the video work of Erin Johnson, this year’s recipient of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation Fellowship. We also get to see some of the works by Alan Fishman exhibited at the Maine Jewish Museum, which recap the dual focus of his career: the natural world and the “drama of the human spirit.” Some of his images, paintings done while lecturing on art history on a cruise ship, also take on a poignant meaning in the context of a pandemic that prevents travel.
In the present situation, community is more important than ever. and David Estey’s piece on the “Mid-Coast Salon” in Belfast provides a wonderful example of artists and art professionals coming together in a supportive and convivial manner. We read about their upcoming UMVA Portland gallery show.