Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people, and in literature, philosophy or art takes on many forms and formats. The purpose of dialogue is to explore topics rather than reach conclusions. It is different from a debate and more egalitarian than a monologue.
Artists can choose from many forms to explore their themes or topics. There is the interview format between two artists, or a less formal conversation format, or the lyrical, narrative format. And there is a visual dialogue, through images such as Jim Chute’s “Conversations” series, or Christine Sullivan seeking salon-style interaction.
There are questions extended to artists to explore with others and reflect on the process.
When making art are you seeking to explore dialogue between individuals or is your artwork part of a larger dialogue—a broader cultural perspective? Do curators and art reviewers guide or inhibit your conversations? How do we foster/contribute to dialogue as artists in cultural institutions? How do schools, programs, organizations, UMVA, MAC, MECA, foster or engage their students and programming in dialogue? What is the role of the gallery? The artist?
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MAJ Editorial Board Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
State of the Studio What an artist does daily matters. The continuity of a steady studio practice is a place of invention and exploration, as—or more important than—putting on a show. We asked the artists in this issue to tell us “What are you doing? What are you making?” Are you staying on a course you have long ago established or have you recently started working in a new medium? Are you suddenly working very large or getting small? Have figures emerged or has your work been consumed with geometry? Have you added color, or moved into monochromes? Does the outside world affect your studio life, or is your interior life reflected in your art? And was there a reason— or was it a whim— that brought you to your current direction? Featured artist, Meghan Brady shares her experiences in studio residencies and scale. A studio visit with Ron Crusan explores his work, neighborhood and influences. John Bisbee talks about his new politically-charged art. Beth Wittenberg shares her thoughts on consumption, throw-away people, and being without a studio. Pat Wheeler writes about how we can restore ourselves in troubled times. Sarah Stites reveals how drawing is her lifeline to her work. Sondra Bogdonoff writes about how her weaving is augmented and informed by painting and drawing. Tom Flanagan tells us that drawing connects him to the world and his sensibilities. Jim Chute shares his Conversations series and foreshadows our fall theme: Dialogue. Member contributors include Sandy Olson who gets back into her studio and finds new inspiration. And Ruth Sylmor, Ken Kohl, Pamela Grumbach,Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Michelle Leier, Amy Pollien, Alanna Hernandez all share their art, thoughts and inspirations about the State of the Studio.
Janice Moore shares an account of her experience curating what became the USM-LA Censorship story, and we include with it excerpts from letters written by John Ripton and Robert Shetterly with an essay on the topic by Dan Kany, and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s statement about the incident.
Regular contributor Edgar Beem writes about artists’ studios he has known. Dan Kany describes Henry Isaacs’ studio filled with brushes and small canvas “notes”.
Jane Bianco, Farnsworth Museum curator writes about the 19th century portraitist and landscape painter, James Hope. Sarah Bouchard joins us as a guest contributor and interviews Michael Mansfield, the new executive director and chief curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art about his personal artistic practice.
Dietlind Vander Schaaf contributes an essay from her place of inner contemplation and asks other artists what they are working on.
Our regular Poetry Feature introduced by Betsy Sholl presents poems by Christian Barter and Dawn Potter. Other regular features include: Insight/Incite about Krisanne Baker’s water activist residency in Malawi.
Richard Kane of Maine Masters talks about how he’d like to see those films used in the schools. ARRT! makes more banners, LumenARRT! makes more projections, Portland and Lewiston UMVA chapters present reports. The issue is full of many essays and artists to meet and explore, so find a porch, a hammock, or an armchair by a fire and curl up with the Maine Arts Journal on a fine, or foggy summer day!
From the editors,
Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)
My work has always had an organic, visceral aspect which I consider to be part of my concern with life issues, like vulnerability, passion, and the uncanny.
Drawing in notebooks is my lifeline to my work whether I am in my studio in Maine or Miami or traveling on the road between them. My hand goes where it wants in these visual journals. After I fill each one, I reconnoiter, selecting and tearing out what might be used for inspiration.
Last summer, after completing two long narrative works, I found that I was drawing heads and faces in my notebooks. I wondered how far the features could be distorted or moved around and still read as a face.
Before that, I had been mixing recognizable faces with imagined forms and questioning my need to do this.
Was the realism a crutch to impress the viewer that I could do it? Was it a way of enticing the viewer into the more difficult passages of my work? Or both?
Of course, I know that my best work is not so carefully considered. It’s what emerges when faced with an empty wall. But my fascination with faces was an issue I needed to explore.
I recalled that Philip Guston, at a turning point in his work, made a series of small painted sketches that he considered his “alphabet”, his vocabulary. The photograph of his efforts has always moved me because they are so direct, without sentiment and trying to hold on to what he’d done before.
Guston realized that a lifetime of devotion to art requires the occasional jolt to one’s satisfaction. Like a long relationship, it needs refreshment and redefinition, all the while staying true to the basic alphabet.
I thought back to his efforts and decided to challenge myself to create a vocabulary of heads and faces, leaving the next phase open-ended. Guston used his basic vocabulary as the inspiration for his new work – work that was not, at first, accepted by his admirers. I sensed that I was not taking as great a leap but embraced the exercise anyway.
Here’s what I did:
I culled 20 intriguing face/head sketches from my notebooks and transferred them to sheets of medium-sized Fabriano paper, using black ink and brush. Then I placed bright, colorful, geometric forms behind the faces to give a feeling of space behind them.
Part of my practice, in the last few years, has been to photograph my work with objects from the studio in the foreground. Manipulation of the light source and shadows furthers a process of refinement and integration resulting in a photograph that can be seen as the final “artifact” of the process.
One phase of the process involved masking areas of the paper to leave white paper where there was no color. I used mylar to mask the white areas – and I noticed that it looked lovely as it fell to the floor. Sprayed areas of color trailed off softly and marks made by tape were bold.
The discarded mylar, I decided,would become an integral part of my journey with these drawings, and I placed the scraps as objects in front of the original art. The conceptual kick of plowing my materials back into the work added to the visual mystery of the same color behind and on top of the black and white, partially-obscured drawings.
On the wall of my studio, I placed four or five drawings, arranging them with attention to their colored parts so that a head might be turned on its side. This was a way of keeping me from being too precious with what I’d already made, my carefully inked faces. The black inked lines became the girding – the strong base of my structure – while at the same time maintaining their identity as individual pieces of art.
Pinning and taping the colored mylar in writhing, playful interaction with the under-color and ink drawings, I made a collage on the wall. The mylar encircled, caressed, obscured and opened up to let the drawings show through, giving life to the big form emerging as a unified, amorphous piece of work. This was the pure joy of creation. I didn’t worry about tape or pins showing. I’d pushed through the step-by-step process – the plodding and earnest studying – to using the results of my work in ways I hadn’t intended.
And I had my own alphabet.
The photos of the entire collage (I made several) seem like documentation of an ephemeral site-specific installation, one that could be repeated in different locations. The close ups of different parts of the overall collage are exciting new photographs.
Afterward, I returned to the horizontal format with new interest in color and ideas of how to use the heads. Inspired by a recently recovered Degas (“The Chorus Singers” had been stolen in 2009 and found this winter at a bus station near Paris), I borrowed the composition of singers shown in perspective. Instead of figures, I “plugged in” my heads and painted them in colors I’d been using. It came out quite well but seemed a bit decorative and tasteful until I added the realistic head and face of a somewhat cranky child.
After an earlier 25 year career as a textile artist, selling nationally a line of one-of-a-kind jackets and doing commissioned wall work, I returned to school to get a masters in public policy and started working full-time at the Muskie School at USM. My studio, on the second floor of the barn attached to our house in Portland, was no longer where I went to work. Although there was always something on the loom, I no longer “lived” there.
Even when I worked in planning and development, I still thought of myself as a weaver. I considered my job to use the same sensibilities, same end result: weaving together multiple ideas, people and circumstances to move an institution (or an idea) forward to fruition. But after 20 years in university administration, I am thrilled to now be back in my studio weaving full–time. And weaving has been augmented and informed by painting and drawing.
I began painting while I still had a full-time job. I wanted something more immediate and transportable than weaving. Inspired by my love of casein paint and a class at Haystack with Alan Bray, I have continued painting from nature as an antidote, an opposite starting point from weaving – although I seem to often end up in the same place. When I find a view – through the woods, over the water, or out my window – there is invariably some indiscernible pattern, some underlying structure that I can’t see, but want to find. That is what drives the painting. I try to replicate what I see, but at some point, it becomes about the pattern. And I can layer and evolve a painting in a very different way from weaving.
The loom requires an end vision, and then multiple decisions, all of which have a consequence. So it’s an ongoing process of trying to stay true, decision upon decision, about color and thread and pattern. I get glimpses along the way, but truly don’t know what I have until it is finished and off the loom. I love the constraints of the loom – that both inspire and limit me. I like to work at the edge of possibilities – to see how far I can push the loom in the way it orders and structures the threads. I’ve been exploring pleating, layering and tension changes in making a surface. My husband, Jamie Johnston, has a wood studio below me in our barn, and the dialogue between us continues to play a role in my creative process.
I bought my first loom in 1974, when I moved to the Maine woods, and built a home without power or running water. I still use the same loom. When I recently did a weaving on a new loom, only then did I realize how well I know my loom, and what a relationship we have. We are good friends.
Returning to my studio two and a half years ago, I had only begun to find my weaving rhythm when I became ill with a virus that lasted four months and left me with no energy for the physical work of weaving. While recovering, I began a drawing series “Stilled Life”, as an exploration of a grid structure that has long occupied my mind. I continue to love this simple process of making lines, the sense of hand, and the absolute attention it requires.
After drawing for six months, I began to see the relation between the drawings and weaving and how I could move from lines to threads. Now that I am healthy, I’ve shifted my weaving focus to take what I learned from the drawing process and translate that into weavings, where the loom places its own parameters and opportunities.
In these recent weavings, as in the drawings, each square in the grid is made up of four colors. Two colors alternate changing right to left across the grid, while the other two colors alternate changing top to bottom. The result is that every square is one color different from the squares surrounding it. In a block of 9 squares there is a complete change of colors from the top left, to the bottom right, repeated multiple times. Each weaving/drawing uses 20 – 40 different colors.
I’m consistently awed (infatuated) by how much energy and light is captured in a process that requires such calm concentration. And how the difference between individual threads used as lines and the same threads in a weave can look so completely different.
My practice is in simply working – everyday. I’m acutely aware of the cost of not weaving consistently for so many years. Although I have no regrets, I do feel committed to regaining the mental flexibility and comfort I had during my earlier career as a weaver, hopefully bringing a little more wisdom and ease to the process.
I am totally immersed in this journey at this point – grateful that I have the privilege of time and energy to go wherever this exploration takes me.
The crossroads where you make the turn towards Port Clyde is landmarked by the General Henry Knox Museum, a 1929 re-creation of the original 1794 Federal mansion. Its monumental façade comes into view almost simultaneously with the Dragon Cement Company, a large construction of chutes and appendages of the last functioning cement manufacturer in New England. The historic and the industrial languages blend to form an architectural hybrid landscape, suggestive of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or an assemblage constructed of disparate parts. What brought me to this juncture, and through the coastal villages past Tenants Harbor, to Port Clyde, was an invitation from Ron Crusan to visit his studio.
Upon my arrival we began by looking at a stack of paintings on heavily- textured watercolor paper that at first glance resembled etchings. The paintings are built up layers of dark washes with specks of brilliant color revealed in the intertwined black and gray marks. Ron is reading about Richard Serra’s drawing process and thinking about the marks as language. Perhaps it is Crusan’s experience as a museum director that also has him thinking about how to display the paintings. He considers hanging them low and paired towards each other in a corner. He hopes this will encourage an interaction with the viewer, questioning the placement, creating a dialogue, getting people thinking about how an object occupies space. He is thinking about how a work of art becomes a part of the architecture and defines the space around it.
Crusan has more time now to devote to making, thinking and talking about his artwork. For more than 25 years he was director at several regional museums, most recently the Ogunquit Museum. His move to Port Clyde from Southern Maine last year coincided with his current position as director of Linda Bean’s Maine Wyeth Gallery and collections.
Inside his home, Crusan’s sculptures and assemblages line the walls of the living room and dining room. He makes freestanding sculpture, and shadow box assemblages from old wood, rough wood, and driftwood, some from old furniture, some painted, and some cut and reassembled. The associations that come to mind are some of the familiar names of 20thcentury modernism. But those are not the first associations that Crusan wants you to have.
In 1953—the year that Ron Crusan was born—Joseph Cornell made a series of shadow boxes in homage to a collage work, “The Man at the Café,” by the cubist master, Juan Gris. A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum united those works. A pair of west Coast artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, both contemporaries of Joseph Cornell, worked in a similar vein, as assemblage artists. Cornell feels like a figure from history, his work evokes an earlier era, but he traversed the 20thcentury, spanning the years from 1903-1972, he is on a continuum with George Herms, born in 1935, and who still lives and works in Los Angeles.
One of Crusan’s wall assemblages includes a door handle, another a rusty hinge, a key is inserted into one, while another has a small tin box inset into the wood. They evoke a sense of place. We talk a bit about realism, and what does it actually mean. Crusan pulls a book on Andrew Wyeth off his shelf. He flips through to the painting “Brown Swiss” and talks about the composition. A barn is on the left side with a partial reflection in a pond below, and the sloping horizontal lines of fields intersect in a myriad of textures in grays and browns. There are concentrated areas of activity that balance the space. There were windows in the original structure, Crusan said, but Wyeth left them out and so the wall becomes a slab of white. The painting is as much an observational assemblage with an underpinning of abstraction composed by Wyeth, as Crusan’s pieces are abstractions made of actual elements salvaged from a real place and composed in the studio.
Leaving the more formal rooms in Crusan’s home we enter into his workshop, which resembles a raw materials library. Piles of scrap wood are neatly organized, some are textured, or some with carving and joinery betray a previous function as chair, table, or banister. Stacks of clear storage boxes hold parts and potential projects, sorted by like items, or color. One drawer reveals stacks of old Bingo cards, another is full of Monopoly paraphernalia. One box is filled with yellow pieces of wood, another, orange. Stacks of toy blocks with cowboys, and the corresponding Indians are set up in a still life on the shelf. A ray of sun moved into the upper story window and illuminated the inside of an old doll’s head that sat with a cluster of other dolls on a high perch. “Did you catch that?” asks Ron, and I nod, holding my camera. Lids of Port Clyde sardines tins are stacked like a deck of playing cards, some rusty, some with the logo bright and fresh.
The worn blocks and iconic relics say something about the passage of cultural time: like toy diplomats they present a window into what an American childhood once was.
We walk through the snow to the two storage sheds behind Crusan’s house. There is evidence of a squirrel that sees the space as a refuge. Nature is at work on the materials, even as Crusan has plans for them as well. The aura of possibilities lingers in the space, open- ended by collecting, and arrangement, bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the changes within the culture itself.
As I prepare to leave I ask Ron if he knew of the Waldo County sculptor, and welder David McLaughlin. McLaughlin bought, and moved into a defunct factory, known as “The Cannery” in Liberty Maine, in 1972. McLaughlin was an avid salvage collector of scrap materials on an industrial scale, including the eight-foot tall pressure cookers that once processed vegetables in the Cannery, 500 gallons of steel rings, and as a delicate counterpoint, shelves filled with birds’ nests.
His assemblages of rusty and rustic constructions evoke a sense of nostalgia, fabricated from articles from the recent past which have never fully become a part of our own times. His estate includes 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials, and is now in the care of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Town of Liberty.
Ron is eager to talk about art and to delve beneath the surface. He mentions some of the artists in the area, Jamie Wyeth, Wilder Oakes, and the late Richard Hamilton. Ron talks of future ideas involving all of his Monopoly pieces, arranged, or scattered perhaps, the boards set out on a gallery floor, an invitation to play or to reflect on the game itself.
Ron sees me to the door, and then calls me back in with another book in hand to show me an artist in his neighborhood, accomplished painter, and amateur astronomer, Greg Mort. Thumbing through the book, we enter Mort’s world of exquisite still life—delicate arrangements of shells and planets—assemblages of sorts.
Driving away I feel the potential from all those raw materials, seeds of the mind that might come to grow on fertile soil. I think about Ron Crusan reading, and working from the ideas of Richard Serra, making his own response to those works, his steady and patient collecting of objects, and the absorption of culture and ideas—incorporating the past through its marks and materials.
The search for ephemera through the chance findings of flea markets perhaps now joins the realm of beat poetry, part of an America that is closer to the world of pre-Interstate highway. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was written in the era of the two-lane highway, and published in 1951, two years before Ron Crusan was born, and five years before the Federal Highway Act of 1956. As I drive home through the networks of coastal and back roads, I think about how this landscape still has much in common with the roads that Kerouac traveled.
The theme of this issue of The Maine Arts Journal, InnerVisions, has presented me with a quandary of sorts. It implicitly asks for the reasons and motivations behind my creative process, not something that I have spent much time thinking about.
Art has been a part of my life from birth, and for all I know, it might be fixed in my genetic identity as well. When I was a small child, I had the good fortune to spend every afternoon following school in my father’s studio at what was then Potsdam State Teachers College in upstate New York (now SUNY Potsdam) where he taught painting, sculpture and history of art to aspiring teachers.
I was set up at a table with paper, pencils, crayons, watercolors or clay and each day proceeded to create whatever came to mind. Throughout my life, even before I thought of a career of any sort, drawing and doodles filled the margins of my notebooks. When I finally decided on a direction, it was toward architecture, with its own satisfying mixture of structural discipline and artistic expression.
It was also during this time that I was more fully exposed to the human history of art and architecture, with Bernini and Anthony Caro and Jack Squire my sculptural influences. Looking at my father’s work years after his death, I have to admit that there is more than a little of him in my own work as well.
Another powerful force defining my aesthetic has been Jazz. At ten years old, I discovered Jazz…so many artists, so many different pallets. Miles, Ella, Brubeck, Adderley, Ellington, Rollins, Mingus et al; each with their own interpretation of a world seen through music. My inner vision has always been informed by the structure, counterpoint, rhythm and improvisational nature of this music. Having a framework and vocabulary is just as necessary to my work as it is in jazz.
Defining and refining this vocabulary has been an ongoing effort, as I believe it is to all artists.
A third force in developing a personal aesthetic has been my love of and awe in the power of our natural world and its landscape. I see the same kind of rhythms and counterpoint in nature’s creations as I find in jazz, from the small micro-world found in a square foot of meadow or the patterns in a Trilobite fossil to the most expansive vistas.
How does this all translate into an examination of what moves me and what motivates me to create my art? Combining the rhythms of the visual world and the discipline of design with my soundtrack is, I believe, how I produce my art.
While at times a sculpture or drawing might be drawn from a specific subject, more often it begins as an improvisation, with no conscious thought or idea of where it will go or how it will end. The forms and vocabulary have been accumulated over the years, while the composition rises out of my subconscious as each partly developed piece merges with another, often in surprising directions.
I have no sense that I am pursuing any emotional goal or that I am satisfying any deep psychological need. I make art because that’s where my creative spirit takes me. It would be interesting (to someone) to find out what is going on in my brain while I’m in the process, but I can say with absolute certainty that at least two-thirds of the process for each piece is fraught with uncertainty and a lingering frustration; much like starting a jigsaw puzzle without a guiding picture.
It isn’t until I can clearly see the rhythm of a piece that a sense of satisfaction begins to creep in, a sense that increases as the piece is refined to completion.
It is fitting, as you drive toward Albion to the town of Freedom, that you must take the slight left fork onto the North Palermo Road—part of Maine’s network of international town names—just the sort of place where an Italian-American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like artist Joe Ascrizzi, might settle. On one day that I visited his studios, a statue of the patron saint from and of their family’s hometown of St. Euphemia de Aspramonte in Calabria was on the workbench being restored by Joe, and will later adorn the interior of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, Maine, owned and operated by his younger brother, John Ascrizzi.
“It’s like something out of 100 Years of Solitude,” says Joe. “My Grandfather went to visit his mother and this statue got passed along.” The statue has been a little battered and at one point repainted badly. Now Joe will to help guide it into the next millennium.
I made the trip one day in late fall to visit Joe at his home and studio. I followed the sound of hammering to the studio to where Joe was shaping a metal top for a box he was making. To call what he makes a box is to simplify his unique art pieces into their most obvious attribute. These are more than boxes, they are portable shrines or receptacles for precious objects, consummately crafted, adorned with semi-precious stones, glass melted to resemble tears, or sperm. Carved linen-fold elements are inlaid with bone and brass. These boxes are acts of poetry; some of his boxes have housed manuscripts and books of poetry.
“You both do boxes,” renowned Surrealist art dealer and collector, Julian Levy, told Joe one day, years ago, as he compared Joe’s work to Joseph Cornell. Levy was the first to show Cornell, in 1932, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. “His are more whimsical,” Levy continued, “and yours are more serious.” Ascrizzi met Levy while Joe was running the business of picture framing at Walter’s Gallery in Woodbury, Conn. Levy came in with a Man Ray to be framed and Joe began working for him. For more than 20 years, Levy was a collector of Joe’s art and commissioned more than a dozen of his box sculptures, some of which were featured in an article on the Levy home, published in Architectural Digest (Aug.1981). Joe’s wife Lynn was pregnant with their son Max while they were house sitting for Levy. There, several months passed in Levy’s art-filled writing studio built by a stream near his home, in Bridgewater, Conn. Levy was in southern France, and Max was named for a Max Ernst artwork that was hanging in the studio.
Joe was included in a group show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City in 1974. This led to a solo show at the New York Cultural center in 1975, and another at Ellen Meyer’s Gallery in New York, in 1977. “You’re young and you think you’ve made it,” he told me, “and so you say ‘I’m going to move to Maine. And why not, it’s as good a place as any.” By the 1980’s Joe was showing in Maine, at the Farnsworth and other venues, including a 1993 solo exhibit at St.Mary’s College in Maryland. These were heady times for Joe Ascrizzi.
There is a small silence as we both think of youth and the opportunities that once seemed endless, the cold of early November, the pewter sky, both amplify the passage of seasons. Our conversation turns to physics, specifically particles, and the position of particles, how we are just an arrangement of an arrangement. “There is a word for it,” Joe says, “ ‘Wakan Tanka.’ When the Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of an abstract force of creation and spirituality, a life force and energy existing in all things.”
Joe starts things and finishes things according to an internal rhythm.
A guy came in recently and wanted a fish painted onto a basket, so Joe got out his paints and created one. “I asked him how much he had to spend, and I made him a nice fish, “ says Joe, “and now I started working on some new paintings.” He points over to his easel and paint boxes, neatly arranged, the work highly detailed and well under way. Another painting hanging on the sidewall he says has been there for many years, not yet finished. Yet another is on the workbench, Joe is unsure if it is finished or not, “Who knows where it even comes from?” asks Joe. But he is certain that the painting is a living dream, and that this particular one is one of his favorites.
Joe’s philosophical nature contains humor inside the wisdom. He once told me “You’ve got no car, you’ve got no car troubles. You have a car, you have car troubles.” It is a simple equation that shakes one’s thoughts out of garden-variety complaints. Or his phrase, “Nothing IS forever.” As he says this we laugh like a couple of kids with an inside joke.
We spent some time opening drawers, and looking at raw materials, half-finished, close to complete neatly organized box sections in a room full of drawers and shelves filled with exotic/quixotic wood sections, thorny sections of briar rose stems, deer antlers, shells, metals, semi-precious stones. The multiplicity of materials form a labyrinth. A stack of frames that Joe is working on contains fragments retrieved from the Twin Towers after September 11th. They form an art project that anther artist has envisioned and Joe is helping to bring to life, a wood tower composed of segments that are all framed collages.
There is a book on the table in Joe’s shop by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was the head curator of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1920’s-40’s. He was instrumental in introducing Indian and Persian arts to the West.
“The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art,” wrote Coomaraswamy. Joe has been reading his writings since he was 19 years old but is conflicted.
“His words are so well wrought, but you can’t entirely agree with him, “ says Ascrizzi. “I believe what he says, for humanities sake, but he’s wrong about some other things, or there are ideas of his that just can’t be squared with our times. So I argue with him!”
“The contentment of innumerable people can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilization; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker of art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship, is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a “job”; until finally the ancient society is industrialized and reduced to the level of such societies as ours in which business takes precedence over life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other people, not alone for obvious political or economic reasons, but even more profoundly and instinctively for spiritual reasons?”
“I’m talking about something else, but along those lines,” said Joe, “The Greeks had no word for art. Everyone was an artist or called to be an artist, as in someone who tries to make the invisible visible, and bring something forth that has never existed before.” Or, he mentions the medieval society where everyone has their craft and trade. Joe prefers the idea of the guild system to our current gallery and exhibition hall gigantisms’.
Joe works on several things at once so that when the mood strikes him he can pick up or put down a project. When he gets tired of making the fine marks in his paintings, he picks up a mallet and begins to hammer out a sheet of metal into curved form. Then there are also his intricate carvings in pieces of deer antler that become centerpieces for ceremonial necklaces made of bones and stones.
We go into the house for a while and have scones with, and baked by Joe’s wife Lynn. Some friends drop by to check-in, and his sister–in-law drops by and we discuss the rising tick problem, poetry, and then ordinary matters that are also and most often a part of our daily lives. Lynn shows me their son Max’s paintings, black and white landscapes that are spare, not peopled like Joe’s work and reflect a different age, his own personal challenges and outlook. One of Max’s musical arrangements plays quietly in the background; it is also a form of a landscape, the music like a train journey taken with sound. The title of the piece, “Thank god I’m a bum,” reflects the humor and humility of his father’s philosophy.
Leaving the house, and returning to the shop Joe regrets that his shop space is not larger, it is, in fact small. But then, he puts his hand on the back door knob and opens it outwards, “Do you want to see my Garden of Entropy?” Joe asked, smiling and sighing, “I go out and save something from total disintegration and make something with it.” And like a Fairy Tale, we step through a back door, onto a porch full of odds and ends and I see that the workshop we came from is duplicated and multiplied. There, across a clearing is another workshop filled with large, woodworking shop tools and workbenches. Upstairs is LeBouton Studio, operated by Max’s partner, clothing designer, Lisa Dorr.
There are three or more sheds chock-a-block with spare parts that form a complex and compound of raw materials from floor to ceiling and spilling out into the yards around.
There is a world of parts and pieces awaiting his creative energy to bring them to life, out of their state of dormancy, and just ahead of their potential to decay. Joe awakens an inner life in dull surfaces, exposing the true colors of wood grain, stone’s inner fires, the secret dreams of metal.
The first time I visited Joe and Lynn Ascrizzi a customer came, a man who had an antique table that Joe was working on. “I have to see a man about a table,” Joe said heading to his workshop. My husband and I went with Lynn to view her gardens before settling on their side porch while Joe saw to the client. “My gardens are my art,” said Lynn, and like any true gardener went through a litany of the pests and challenges that besiege her garden world. All around I saw healthy plants and tall lilies in bloom, but like an artist, Lynn sees what more there can be even while presenting a vision of beauty.
We sat on the porch in the wicker and cushioned chairs and realized that the sidewalls of the porch were made of string trellises and the vines of scarlet runner beans. The small, bright red flowers added highlights, accents, and the long pods hung down around the heart-shaped leaves like a Tiffany design. We talked about Lynn’s writing. She wrote a weekly, syndicated, reader-response column called Dreams, which included Jungian interpretations of our collective dreaming mind. She also wrote art-related and other cultural articles, when for many years, she was lifestyle editor and feature writer for the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Now, she freelances for environmental and trade publications.
We sat talking on the porch and the afternoon faded. When the customer left we said our goodbyes and reluctantly drove away. Now I sit with the November winds blowing in practice for the winter ahead.
I saw Joe last night and he was thinking that he wasn’t ready yet for the winter. We agreed that the South held a special appeal this year; perhaps a visit to a friend in Mexico was in order? Or perhaps he will dream through the winter with visions of Mexico and travel into his projects to uncharted galaxies. Joe has a box of glass beads that resembles a universe and he uses them in the background of his assembled and collaged paintings as stand-ins for the stars.
If I had a box like the boxes that Joe makes, in it I would put the seeds from Lynn’s scarlet runner beans, which are now in a bag on my bookcase. In that box would be the mothers of all of summers. Inside each seed the potential for an endless afternoon on that porch, with a book from the neat stack on the table, and the scent of Casa Blanca lilies mingling with the fading afternoon light.
As winter sets in and the days grow darker I am reminded of the time in ancient Greece when caves symbolized the entrance to the classical underworld. A person entered the cave to seek wisdom in the darkness not the light. A place where the opposites meet and where there is room to confront and make meaning of our anxieties, whether fear, shame, helplessness and now for some artists to sort out a collective angst; to peel away the veils and make meaning and form.
Many artists are attracted to the subconscious realm where one travels in the shadows, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are occluded; much as they are for children who are unabashedly drawn to the dark side through fairy tales and gothic stories.
As a child I had two made-up friends who were so real to me that that even now I can picture them. The boundary between imagination and reality was merged. As adults the daytime world makes demands that can disrupt our focus and independence. Sometimes we need a guide.
Hermes was the the guide to the underworld and also the god of the unplanned journey, taking serpentine paths where discoveries happen. This would be familiar terrain to those artists whose work changes constantly with unforeseen results. This way of working is to give yourself up to that which is not readily explainable, to try out forms and inventions and to trust the process.
Baudelaire refers to the north wrapped in mists. The Northern painters, although aware of Italian artists who idealized human forms and perfected perspective in their work, chose a different path following their gothic heritage. Durer’s use of agitated line and his momenti mori prints reference the transitory nature of life on earth. The Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald portrays the graphic pain and suffering of Christ and the torments visited on St. Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch vividly shows us fires, demons, and horrors of all kinds.
One is reminded of the lines from Paradise Lost, “One great furnace flamed but from these flames no light but rather darkness visible.” Darkness made visible can also refer to inner psyche which can be shaped in the outer world. This tradition of the grotesque is now evident in the work of the Quay brothers. They exemplify the same dark vision in their videos of detritus and puppets, based on the work of Bruno Schulz and other eastern European writers.
For a long time I have been interested in puppets and bats. Bats which weave the night sky and shape shift the spaces between them in their chaotic flight could be seen as symbols of continuing change as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Their flight evokes a metaphor for the process of making. In the imagination of a child, puppets can burst into life connecting reason and intuition. In my installation at UNE of hanging puppets and other sculptural elements, the puppets were mirrored in a dark pool of water below them. At first one saw figures in flight, but they were also reflected in an endless descent.
Dante’s descent to the nine circles of purgatorio, with Virgil as guide, was to seek a path (from the dark wood) and to gather wisdom. The intersection between searching and mark making can happen in the fertile terrain when we travel below the surface and come face to face with the darker sides of our nature, which is washed away in the daylight.
“Must the morning ever return?
Is the thralldom of the earth unending
Unhallowed activity swallowed up
The heavenly visitation of the night” Novalis 1800
When in the studio, and when not, it’s a constant, continuous cavalcade of mixing and mining the ins and outs; making new connections and reinforcing existing ones; building the cribwork ever higher, erecting bridges on bridges, developing the infrastructure of a messy mind.
It’s carrying as much as possible on your back at all times, yet only offering a few small findings on the table at once; kneading, forming, nurturing, pruning: turning the clippings into their own small growths, watering them, and milking them. Folding them, with or without creasing: careful, most of the time.
It’s digging deep into the couch cushions, pulling out long-lost, temporarily forgotten nuggets of past ideas, all the while shifting to get comfortable, only to shift again when the coziness fades to numbness. Shift.
It’s following something down rabbit holes and over lily pads, under trees and over moons. Hiding nests in caves in burrows in webs.
It’s hanging on to a cliff with your feet on the ground, or getting out of bed when you’re still in the clouds.
It’s making noise, making dust, making a thing, or thirteen.
It’s recalling an old flash, an old pan. Recall, recall, recall.
Forget and recall, again.
It’s balancing 16 points of contact on one fingertip, while making lunch. Sketch things out and scratch them in. Press things flat, and roll them up; sort the collection, create distance between your time and your work. Join the edges, and leave the seams.
I explore cycles of accumulation and release in our physical and emotional landscapes. My recent exhibition at SPEEDWELL projects, entitled Out of Sorts, invited viewers to consider individual and collective consumption as manifest in six bales of recyclable materials that non-profit solid waste manager, ecomaine compacted smaller than usual to fit through the gallery door.
Aided by myriad individuals whose gestures of release collectively created the readymade objects appropriated for this occasion, I pressed pause on the recycling process to allow visitors to contemplate their patterns of consumption and the personal, cultural and global implications of disposability.
To facilitate such reflections, I commissioned benches fabricated by Benjamin Spalding out of wood we salvaged from woodpiles in Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, and upholstered by Amy Emmons with fabric printed with photos of bales of recycling.
Visitors fulfilled my hope that they would sit on these plushly cushioned benches and register the visual, visceral, and psychological impact of simultaneously minimalist and maximalist monuments to communal efforts to keep things out of the landfill.
Printed on fabric and hung on pegs designed to force viewers to implicate themselves through handling and potentially draping around themselves, were photographs of trash being incinerated and recycling being sorted both mechanically and by hand.
I designed this series of “wearable or wall-able” prints entitled “Complicity” to humanize the process and highlight the fact that when we place something in a recycling bin we are in direct physical dialogue with workers who sort, remove contaminants from, and bale recyclable materials.
Materially manifest in the strata of these intimate yet anonymous commodities is evidence of how we eat, drink, work, play, and clean, and how much (or how little) attention we pay to discarding things responsibly.
Since the exhibition ended, the U.S. recycling industry has been drastically impacted by China halting imports of much of our castoff material due to a crackdown on pollution. While Trump dismantles environmental protections, China is imposing fines and shutting down factories violating previously unenforced environmental regulations.
A crisis point is upon us commanding that we minimize what we are using rather than continue congratulating ourselves on tossing things in blue bins.
At 39 a friend introduced me to Munch’s work. I had been an artist for 20 plus years. That day I woke up. My drawings and painting of my inner world were not just psychological doodling – but actually legitimate subject matter.
I began with pictures and sculptures about the experiences of childhood and how the trauma and pain got played out in later life. Losses of love and and the joys and pain of being a physician and a parent in adult life.
In recent decades horses and maternal figures have intruded into my work.
I am not clear what this is about-my own yearning for my actual mother and my love for my daughter and for the majestic animals who symbolize compassionate power and freedom. And the cosmic need our predatory culture has for mare power, compassion and feminine wisdom before we totally deplete the earth and annihilate ourselves as well as our animal companions on the planet.
A colleague noticed some small elements in a painting which didn’t seem to fit.
“Who’s that?” they inquired.
Without hesitation, I replied “It’s Bones.”
On reflection this is Bones: —Daddy who promised me a pony and never showed up for our visit. —The agony of witnessing pain in animals and humans and being unable to help. —A boy who said my vagina smelled bad. —My best friend’s Harvard brother who raped me. —Nazis who turned my ancestors into skeletons and lampshades and their successors who continue to practice genocide and brutality. —Mrs. Lyons who threatened me at 5 with castor oil. —Boys who tormented me with bad names —A beloved man who spurned me for someone more sexy —My trusted mama who left me at 4 at a boarding school —The senators and representatives who vote themselves good health insurance while people have to choose between food and medicine. —Big companies and governments who thrive on killing by war and cheap labor —The selfishness of all of us who won’t share our comfortable lives with refugees from genocide and disasters
Bones lives in me and in the culture. I don’t like knowing he exists in me too. I ask myself what does he have to teach me.
He teaches me to shout “Back up bones!”
He says, “Find your backbone. Fight like a powerful mare! Don’t let fear stop you. Stand up for yourself and your values. Hold your ground. Be sturdy and lively. Love and play harder”
Wishing all of our readers a good start to this New Year and glad to have you as a part of our ever-evolving arts community in Maine.
For our Winter 2018 issue the theme InnerVisions has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways through the eyes of many artists. Meant to be an exploration of concepts ranging from Jungian insights to a general state of mental and physical/material health as translated through the vast territories of the imagination.
This issue contains Essays and visual essays from the colorful animal world of Eva Goetz, the ethereal, hyperborean map world of Alison Hildreth, and explore the mind and art of Alan Crichton. Take a voyage with Carl Little who writes on Robert Neuman’s “Ship to Paradise”, a series which depicts a ‘Ship of Fools’ on a fraught journey, as a metaphor for the human condition. Join Ethan Hayes-Chute as he goes “deep into the couch cushions, pulling out long-lost, temporarily forgotten nuggets of past ideas.”
We encounter Joseph Ascrizzi in his “Garden of Entropy,“ combining exquisite craftsmanship with a deep philosophy, Sarah Hewitt brings us her serious play with vibrant weavings, and Vic Goldsmith tries “not to think about anything” while working on his jazz-inspired improvisations. Included is an insightful essay by Dr. Nancy Coyne, the“Insight/incite” column by Portland Culture Exchange, and many of our regular features, such as ARRT!’s latest banners and poetry selected by Betsy Sholl.
The Maine Arts Journal was honored in December by a merit grant from the Rabkin Foundation for Art Writing. The grant has been partially put towards upgrading the Maine Arts Journal’s tech security structure, allowing us to reinstate our comments feature. The grant also allows us to improve and maintain the site in general. One new feature is a request to “Support MAJ!” While the subscription is still free, support is welcome.
Many artists were drawn to Maine for a more rural, small town/small city experience, space to work, and time in their studios. Those very features, while alluring, can also breed isolation and disconnection. The Union of Maine Visual Artists works to build a network and provide a forum for artists that supplements the different interests and functions of the galleries and larger institutions across the State. The Maine Arts Journal, as a key component of the Union, acts as a voice and a visual library for the Arts in Maine. Supporting the Maine Arts Journal is like giving a micro grant to a large, diverse group of artists throughout the state. Much of the work is done on a voluntary basis, or for nominal pay. Your support will help us afford the technical and material help we need to ensure that we can maintain what we have built so far and continue to develop.
And now to the Winter 2018 issue, please enjoy!
from the editors Natasha Mayers, Nora Tryon, Daniel Kany, Jessica McCarthy, Kathy Weinberg
The same year this classic rock song hit the airwaves, the painter Robert Neuman was also considering paradise and how one might get there. Neuman’s thinking, as he told Robert Brown in an Archives of American Art interview in 1991, went like this:
Being involved in thematic attitudes in painting and drawing and art in general, I thought, well, as we see in modern civilization everybody’s trying to get to Paradise somehow, it seems, I thought, how in the world do you do that, do you go in an Oldsmobile, how do you go, how do you get there? So I thought maybe you get there on a medieval barque.1
In one of his most inventive—and adventurous—acts of art, Neuman (1926-2015) embarked on his “Ship to Paradise” series, constructing an old world vessel, rounding up a motley crew, and setting forth upon the seas—and into the sky. Over the next ten years, with the aid of parachutes and a tow, his morphing mythic three-story ship made its wayward voyage across an alternative universe.
While the painter had explored symbolism in his oils, never had he employed imagery of this kind: richly evocative, at times tongue-in-cheek, open-ended and intellectually engaging. In his interview with Brown, Neuman described some of the imagery in Ship to Paradise—Paradise Found.
“There’s a skeleton holding a bucket of tools, six suns in the sky—black suns—and the story is they found Paradise by accident by wrecking the boat on this island. And then when they got there, it turns out the time involved to get to Paradise was longer than the human life-span, therefore I put the skeleton there.”
Part of the appeal of these works is their sheer complexity, a dynamic welter of styles and imagery. Geometric, organic and representational elements often occupy the same pictorial space; and various art-historical echoes occur, from Hokusai’s famous wave to the abstract acrobatics of Kandinsky.
At one point in his interview with Neuman, Brown mentioned the “literary overtone” of the “Ship to Paradise” series. He is referring to the 1983 portfolio of etchings commissioned by August Heckscher (1913-1997) as a contemporary complement to a reprint of Sebastian Brandt’s 1494 Shyp of Fooles with Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut illustrations.2 In his introduction to Neuman’s suite, the Renaissance scholar John Olin highlighted the wonderful absurdity of the voyagers in his images. “They seek ‘paradise’ the wrong way, and their topsy-turvy ship, impeded and encumbered as it is, will never take them there.”3
The “Ship to Paradise” pieces feature elements of the landscape of Mount Desert Island where Neuman took up summer residence in the late 1960s. While not explicit in its reference—and decidedly fantastic in its imagery—Ship to Paradise—Drydock, 1977, conjures the region’s tradition of boat-building.
For all their whimsical qualities, the “Ship to Paradise” pieces are essentially about mankind and its irrational desire to leave one world for another. “I believe art is humanistic in its essence,” Neuman told Brown toward the end of their 1991 interview, “and it should stay that way however it’s presented by the artist.”
The “Ship to Paradise” series remains relevant as we consider the debris that drifts through outer space—or the wreck of the Concordia in 2011. “The photos of that Italian cruise ship continue to haunt us,” one commentator wrote, adding, “How could a trip to paradise go so wrong?” They might have asked Robert Neuman, who addressed this question with vital and visionary brilliance.
[A longer version of this essay first appeared in the catalogue for Robert S. Neuman’s Ship to Paradise at the Heckscher Museum of Art, Aug. 18-Nov. 25, 2012. Little also contributed an essay to the catalogue for “Impulse and Discipline: 60 Years of Painting by Robert S. Neuman, 1950–2010” at the Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery at Keene State College.]
Interview with Robert Neuman conducted by Robert Brown at the artist’s home in Winchester, Massachusetts, May 1-June 19, 1991. The artist also suggested a Trailways bus as a possible means of conveyance to Paradise.
Heckscher was a polymath whose roles in life included arts administrator, public servant, journalist, social commentator, man of letters, historian, and sailor. He was also a self-described “printer by avocation,” producing fine limited-edition letterpress publications.See Carl Little, “August Heckscher: A Man about the World—and Mount Desert Island.” Chebacco, Journal of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, vol. 7, 2006-2007.
John C. Olin (1916-2000) taught history at Fordham University from 1946 to 1986. He specialized in Erasmus and the Catholic Reformation. He and his wife, artist Marian Olin, were summer residents of Little Cranberry Island, Maine.
Since I began the Events/News and Newsletter pages of the Maine Arts Journal, I have also been marking off spam. Last week I emptied the folder at 2,500 plus entries, and after a weekend off there were 250 more to catch up with! I have seen into a gyre of mind-scrambling proportions. Vast distortions of reality threaten to engulf, enmesh and hobble my time and thoughts as I delete, delete and delete.
I woke up this morning at 2am knowing I would not get back to sleep. There is a war on. A war of words that are being puked out by drunk computers from the mind’s dungeon where writers of propaganda meet and mash up with algorithms and endlessly create fictitious names and accounts, attaching toxic links. Even worse is the some times rational voice that emerges and may find a soft landing in someone’s heart or mind. Earworms, heart strings, viral memes are being bombarded at our inbox. There are ominous rants from Holocaust deniers, men who want to boycott American women and promote third world sex slaves. There are messages in many languages, pages of characters directly from the tower of Babel. Some is computer gibberish, strings of brand names, random sentences and live links. There are awkward translations, broken English, robot English, praising the content of our small Arts Journal Blog site, promising to bookmark us and return. This compliment sounds like a threat.
Yesterday I brought this report to my team and we weighed the options. We decided to terminate the comments feature and cut ourselves free from the entanglement.
At 1800 hours I received this message:
“I took a deep breath and installed the plug-in to disable all comments. It means we lost the good ones from Spring too… I hope it works ok.”
Perhaps I will sleep better now, but I can still hear the distant clicking of keys, like the mandibles of an ant army scuttling over leaf and rock, streaming into my devices. Blocked, for now, by a thin veil of technology but there and just waiting for an opportunity, the slightest slip.
Then, before dawn, this note arrived from a friend.
“Somehow I keep thinking of this lately,” they said. It was a quote from Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general who chronicled the war between Sparta and Athens in the year 411 BC.
“The regular meaning of words changed to fit the state of affairs. Insane risk was now bravery for an ally; careful forethought was cowardice; moderation was considered an excuse for being unmanly; circumspection was an unwillingness to commit; heedless attacks was termed manly behavior, and self-defense was a bland excuse for conspiracy.
The one seeking extreme action was considered trustworthy; anyone who spoke against him was suspicious. If you were a successful conspirator, you were smart; you were clever if you discovered a conspiracy. But if you made provisions against either situation, you risked dividing your party and living in fear of your opponents. It was simply the same whether you stopped someone from doing wrong or you discovered a new opportunity for wrongdoing.” Thucydides
Day is emerging now from night, the half moon setting, and Antares no longer visible. The sun will rise, and day will come. The day will come.
In many ways, that day is already here.
Provincialism (n.) “narrowness of mind or outlook; lack of sophistication” (Collins English Dictionary)
“Provincial” is a tricky word. After all, when we talk about the arts, this might be the term we sense as the other to “urban.” And yet, it would only be balanced if “urban” and, say, “urbane” were blended. “Provincial” carries an inherent sting.
How do we talk about regional or local art communities in a way that acknowledges their identities and their distinctive strengths and weaknesses without the presumed insult of provincialism? This is a huge topic of interest for the artist communities of Maine, but it is a conversation avoided by both sides of the polemic. After all, to look down your nose at your local community with the insult side of provincialism isn’t going to win you many friends – or it could isolate you within your own elitist clique. And to argue for provincialism is, by definition, an argument for ignorance: It’s a losing prospect out of the gate because the overbalanced weight of the word.
Not surprisingly, this problem begins in France. That said, the strands of painting that came to lay the path for American art and Maine painting in particular flowed primarily from France. And our French roots go back to our state’s foundation: Maine, after all, gets its name from a French province.
In the nineteenth century, the cultural map of France was described in two words: Paris and Le Désert – “the desert.” That was it. You were either in the central cultural city of the world (as the French saw Paris) or you were in a cultural wasteland.
And yet France is the place that literally institutionalized local flavor: Champagne is only from the Champagne region – or else it cannot be called “Champagne.” Bordeaux’s famous wines are only from Bordeaux – and so on. And this is regulated and enforced by law. (The same also goes for butters, cheeses, etc.)
We can use terms like “regionalism” and “localism” but there is no balance for the tacit insult of being labeled “provincial.” Nonetheless, underlying this seemingly overdetermined topic is a rich conversation that — due to our own politeness among our arts communities — has been overly overlooked. This issue of the Maine Arts Journal hopes to open the floor for this conversation for the benefit of all.
I see Maine as having one of the best art “brands” in America: How is that distinctive Maine brand good for Maine artists? How is that limiting?
Like New York, Maine has one of the densest and richest art historical traditions (including art stars and major movements etc). To what extent does the sense of place bring the communities together — or not?
Many artists, including a number of the nation’s biggest names, simply work in Maine as a place to find focus. Their work, their conversations, their galleries, their concerns have little to do with Maine. In other words, many artists working in Maine don’t consider themselves “Maine artists.” And if their shared concerns are not artistic, do they have economic, legal or social points in common? Should they?
Local color plays a role for many artists working in Maine, it allows for a metaphor of place where an artist might decide that it is here, “between rock and root” that they will hammer out their visions. Building or participating in a “brand,” after all, helps build bridges of expectation or markets while reaching clearly into recognizable cultural communities populated with real people, peers, colleagues, friends. But does this make them willfully provincial, intentionally branded (in the hot iron sense of the word) to a certain extent with ignorant narrowness?
“Provincial” might roll off the tongue as an easy sneer, but it opens the door to some complex and important conversations about the unity and diversity among the communities of artists working in Maine.
above: Emilie Stark-Menneg, Add Gulls, 2017, 48”x36”, acrylic and oil on canvas
“Regionalism: Maine Art and Artist“
We are pleased to present the Fall 2017 issue “Regionalism: Maine Art and Artist”. A variety of artists and writers respond to the question: Is regionalism possible in a globally- connected environment? What does the term Maine artist mean in today’s art culture and is such a term meaningful at all? From Ed Beem, Marsha Donahue, Lucy Lippard’s words to the art and reflections of William Irvine, Mary Armstrong, Emilie Stark-Menneg and many more, they all explore an in-depth discussion on a sense of place that is both unifying and unique. Marsden Hartley garners more than one mention as an artist who returned to and claimed Maine as his muse.
We received 21 UMVA members’ submissions for this issue, more than any other theme. We look forward to your submissions for the upcoming issues. The Journal themes change quarterly and so there are many opportunities for an artist to find a subject that suits their individual temperament. Check the guidelines for the theme of “Innervisions” for winter 2018 and consider contributing. The Journal includes chapter updates and issues concerning all members, and a UMVA Newsletter for artist opportunities that will be kept updated.
There is a News/Events selection on the menu that includes show listings of members and member-affiliated galleries and non-profit organizations, and includes open calls for art. Check the listings for ongoing updates and to get an idea of how much art there is going on around the state. The Journal is launching its own Facebook page, be sure to “Like” the page to get regular highlights of members art and ideas, excerpts from the Journal, and archives, and updates on current events.
We would like to welcome Kathy Weinberg to the editorial board of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly with her own words:
“I joined the UMVA because of the Journal. I like to communicate through writing and believe in publishing. As “The Fourth Estate” journalism has a high place in our society. Mix journalism with poetry and you get a sense of what the Journal aspires to. The Journal allows a variety of artistic points of view to be seen and is a beautiful showcase/ platform of the art that is, and has been made throughout the region. The Journal offers a forum where the artists voice can be heard and where ideas about art and the artistic life are shared. I feel that being an artist in today’s society is by itself a quietly subversive act that I practice daily and by tending to my projects and visions affect the lives of others around me in this way. “ Kathy Weinberg, 2017
Enjoy this Fall issue with a cup of something warm in this season of change, introspection and added layers,
From the Maine Arts Journal Editorial Board,
Jeff Ackerman, Dan Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
The romantic trope of the melancholic, or even crazy, artist distorts the very real tensions the artist experiences when engaging in content at the intersection of the cultural and personal, that zone where the artist lives and thrives. While making art, an artist may be dealing with anxiety, disappointments, insecurity, fear and/or desire, and sometimes a touch of joy and ecstasy. Artists possess the tools to explore what is below the shallow surface of normalcy and this may appear disturbing to those who shy away from having their sensitive nerves pressed.
Art is too often seen as a retreat from the complexities of the world, but it not just a relief from our troubles, or from the global problems, but more a way of taking them on. Art can engage with the darker side of our psyches and the darkness in our culture. We use the word “play” in the context of art but play in this context is very serious, like Hamlet, where everybody is dead at the end.
We choose subject matter we are drawn to for reasons we don’t always understand, and such choices are critical to our exploration of who we are. For the winter issue, we invite artists to participate in an exploration of art as psychic content made visible; an expression of both individual psyche but also the psyche, or soul, of the culture. Does art exorcise our demons or does it just exercise them and take them out for a walk in the sunlight?
We invite UMVA members to submit up to 4 images. Also Include an image list and statement or essay in Word doc. format. Image credit list format: Artist’s Name, “Title of Work”, medium, size, date (optional), photo credit (if not included we assume it is courtesy of the artist).*
Images should be approximately 1000 pixels on short side with total resolution between 500KB to 1.2MB. Image file names must include the artist’s name and the number corresponding to the image list. Put “InnerVisions” in the subject line and submit to firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com> by December 1st deadline. MAJ will limit the “Members Submit” section to UMVA members who have not been published in the past year.
We are no longer able to accommodate artists’ formatted visual essays, we will lay out text and images submitted using the new guidelines above.
Maine artists and arts community members can become members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists by clicking here <http://umvaonline.org/index.php?page=join> . Membership helps support the UMVA’s advocacy and helps make this Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly possible. For a free subscription to the MAJ click here <http://umvaonline.org/index.php?page=journal> .This means that a link to this Journal will be mailed to your inbox.
*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” 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.
The Artists Rapid Response Team! is a project of the Union of Maine Visual Artists. Members of ARRT! are UMVA members and activist artists who work to provide visuals for progressive groups throughout Maine, seeking to add a visual voice to help carry their messages far and wide. The following images are recently completed banners. Click on them to expand images.
The slideshow below gives a glimpse of the July 4th 2017 parade in Whitefield Maine, titled “Liar Liar Pants on Fire!” Artist Natasha Mayers has organized a community Independence Day Parade in her hometown of Whitefield for decades. Many of the props, banners and constructions in this year’s parade were created by ARRT!
LumenARRT! is a project of the Artists Rapid Response Team (ARRT!). We work through the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA) to advocate for artists and further the work of progressive non-profits in the state of Maine. Our video projections create a visual voice for these organizations and like electronic graffiti, bring awareness to issues of social, political and environmental justice.
LumenARRT! participated in the River Jam Fringe Fest in Biddeford Friday, September 15 with a projection of “Warming of the Gulf of Maine” video-mapped on the facade of the Marble Block on Main St. Festival goers of all ages also joined in the draw-your-own-comments/electronic graffiti using “Tagtools” and shadow puppets projected around the corner on a Franklin St wall.
Click on images below to see a short video of the project.
9/22 —Tag tools interactive projection on Mechanics Hall celebrated the Community Television Network and highlighted their annual fundraiser, UMVA Gallery renovations and transformation to becoming the “Portland Media Center” 516 Congress St.
10/6 — First Year anniversary of opening of the LGBTQ Equality Community Center: LumenARRT! will be projecting interviews (with sound) on shapes in the Plaza, as well as some interactive components on Mechanics Hall, 511 Congress St, Portland.
Maine has its own character, soul if you wish. I felt it the first morning I woke
up in Maine, in an A-frame on Tom Leighton Point in Washington County, lobster
boats droning off shore, gulls crying, the smell of herring bait. A smudge of islands on the horizon. I had arrived from Scotland, and our two souls bonded. It was love at first sight.
As my work developed, it seemed to be formed by those two places: the
white fishermen’s houses of Jonesport and the whitewashed farms of Scotland; the presence of the Atlantic, sometimes moody and turbulent and other times fresh and clean as linen sheets.
So I worked with those visual stimulants, but the depiction of landscape is
never the end intention. For the creative artist it is the vehicle through which he
expresses something more universal, the landscape of the mind, where we all live no matter our physical location.
John Marin’s seascapes are not just about Maine scenery; “The Written Sea”
comes to mind, a favorite of mine. Marsden Hartley’s paintings of Mount Katahdin
are presences that go beyond Maine—they have the grandeur of a Tahitian god or a Greek hero, like Heracles.
So does it matter where we live? I think it does, for each artist finds his
comfort zone, a place he feels connected to. Van Gogh in Provence, Marin in
Addison, de Kooning on Long Island. It is a place that allows us to communicate
with our surroundings. We use the props at hand, be they hills or harbors; in my
case, clouds, islands, and boats. But are they any different from cypress trees, vineyards, and wheat fields? The trail of a lobster boat echoing the horizon is just,
for me, a necessary line in the composition, which strengthens the final expression.
Artists talk to their surroundings, but not in any local language; after all,
artists are forever from away.
Regionalism The term Maine artist and the concept of regionalism are political in the sense that the lines on paper defining these terms are drawn on political maps. It is currently difficult to divorce these topics from the related, bitter cultural divides that are roiling politics, not just in America but across the globe. These conflicts are not new and in fact this archetypal struggle stretches to the birth of human civilization, and is mythologized in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Cain was a farmer, a settler, and Abel a herdsman, a nomad. The story illustrates the real world tensions between settlers and nomads. This polarity plays an important and universal role in how cultures develop and evolve. Settlers organize, become specialists, invent and build. Nomads carry ideas on their backs from one settlement to another. Throughout history, culture has thrived in cities and regions that were advanced, well organized, but that also received travelers, traders and immigrants, and sent their own citizens out into the world, for commercial and cultural purposes.
All over the world this divide between urban globalists and rural nativists is turning bitter, hostile and at times violent. It seems ironic that there is an international movement of isolationist, nativists—they are, ironically, involuntary globalists. Art culture is similarly divided between globalists and regionalists, each with legitimate leanings—pride and love of place pitted against curiosity and openness—and many have no problem situating themselves between these compatible sentiments.
The term regionalism came into use to describe the works of artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry, whose works were generally set up as the antitheses of European modernism. They celebrated rural and working class America at a time when many urban American artists still looked to Europe, ancient and modern. Study in Paris and then the grand tour of Italy were seen as essential to an artistic education for many Americans, and these pilgrims, in turn, set up a view of America as provincial.
The Painter of Maine Maine’s première regionalist, Marsden Hartley, is a more complicated story, and the works that are considered regionalist came after he established himself as one of America’s most prominent modernists. He made a conscious decision in the 1930’s to become, in his own phrase, thepainter of Maine, and landscape painting is naturally at the core of Hartley’s regional identity. In Maine he found a wild nature, untouched by man, which allowed him to express a religious feeling between melancholy and ecstasy. He possessed a knack for discovering a profound beauty in the barren and desolate.
But despite Hartley’s own desire to be the painter of Maine, I cannot see this work through a regional lens. The Maine works have the same mood and feel as his Alpine or New Mexico landscapes, or in his series on the barren rockscapes of Dogtown in Gloucester, Massachusetts. What Hartley found in Maine or in Dogtown was an isolation and solitude that many artists have found in the anonymity of the city. As with much current Maine landscape painting, the appeal is universally broad and the city dweller may even be more in need of Hartley’s portals to the primal than the rustic. Hartley’s sentiments are universal in the most cosmic sense of that word.
Hartley transformed himself into a regionalist defensively. In the jingoist atmosphere of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was criticized as being too European and too modern. Regionalism was seen as true American painting and the preferred mode was realism rather than the imported mode of abstraction, though the most prominent regional artists look incredibly artificial to our modern eyes (and I imagine they likely did then to those not blinded by ideology). But Hartley was not a reluctant convert, and shared some of the nativist, xenophobic tendencies of the pro-American painting camp. The politics of that day pivoted around themes that sound all too familiar. The rural working-man was mythologized as the true American, as opposed to the urban, Europeanized, effete elites.
For that latter type you can insert Jew, but Jew in this context is not an actual Jew, but a stand in for the foreign born, the financial elites, condescending toward the common man. Hartley’s essays implicitly betray his sympathies for this view, and his letters reveal them more explicitly. He had a well-known love affair with a German officer who died in World War I, and Hartley continued to have a love affair with German culture. In 1933-34, he traveled to Germany, where he saw and admired Nazi pageants and parades, and found common ground in the Nazi idealization of the folk. He linked a New England Anglo Saxon heritage to their German roots. Like the Nazis, Hartley was obsessed with youth and beauty as an expression of racial purity. His homosexuality, rather than mitigate his admiration for the Reich, played into a fascist fixation on masculinity, athleticism and male power. Even his admiration for Native Americans was colored by his viewing them as racially pure; he mentions in a letter how the Indians of Mexico would not go near the mixed race mestizo. This was all played down with his many Jewish friends in New York art circles, but Ettie Stettheimer, sister of painter Florine Stettheimer, stopped inviting him to her salon because of what she described as his admiration for Hitler.
Much of Hartley’s nativist attitude was quite common in New England, and all over America, at that time. He lamented that New England was being ruined by commercialism, and the nouveau riche. Criticizing the nouveau riche is different from criticizing the rich; the poor as well as the wealthy Anglo Saxon might use that term to describe a person of moderate wealth, one or two generations removed from immigrant poverty. Their names might still be foreign as well as their accents. Tending to be proud of their achievement, they might display their wealth to the degree that the Boston Brahmin might hide theirs.
It is in Hartley’s quasi-religious paintings of fisherman and loggers that this bias can be detected, and knowing his leanings does affect how these paintings are currently seen and read. The paintings themselves are often striking, but the brilliant paint-handling cannot be divorced from the subject matter. He indeed elicits a real sympathy for the subjects, but in light of the election and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, these subjects are once again charged. This interpretation was present in the political moment Hartley’s images were first painted, but fell into the background in the intervening years. Saying this, is not to suggest that we should shy away from viewing the works, but rather that we should fully engage with them, because of—not in spite of—their flaws. Great works are inevitably made by flawed humans and contain flawed ideas, and the tension between Hartley’s authentic mysticism and (what we can now see as his) misguided politics make these paintings worth grappling with.
The heroes of these paintings are presented in a Biblical framework; the working-men are Christ-like, or like Christ’s fishermen disciples, and a fishermen’s dinner is clearly read as a last supper. The routine dangers that the loggers and fishermen grapple with make them suitably heroic subject matter. But these occupations were fading even in Hartley’s day, and today they are a smaller part of the Maine economy, though they play an oversized role in Maine’s myth-fed leading industry; tourism. There is a false note in having such figures stand for the region, and that is especially true now. Van Gogh painted his province’s working folk as he found them: a postman, a doctor, as well as farmers and fishermen. American regionalist sentimentality plays into a lie now current on both sides of the political divide—the mythos of the working class. This term is now antiquated and sexist, suggesting masculine physical labor but excluding, teachers, bank tellers, nurses, and other common, modern occupations. Women, exceedingly rare in Hartley’s work, take on a secondary role when they do appear, and the men are depicted in a style of exaggerated masculinity, as in his depiction of a Hercules in a G-string (Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, 1940). That Hartley shares this quality with Hellenistic sculpture, Michelangelo and Marvel comics does put him in good company, but points out that his men look more like culture than nature.
Provincialism We cannot blame an artist for painting what they love. That Cezanne chooses to paint his mountain is understandable. But Provence cannot claim Cezanne, who, though a Provencal, influenced modernist painting worldwide, not for what he painted but for how he painted it. That sort of promotional language essentially defines the parochial and provincial character of regionalism.
Hartley very consciously honed in on regional subject matter, but went on to make the dubious claim that even his style was native. Maine has no ruined temples from antiquity, no Romanesque or Gothic churches, and no Renaissance paintings—all of the historical components of Hartley’s, or any Western painter’s, style. Hartley claimed that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the source of this native style, Ryder being a fellow New Englander, born in New Bedford. But Ryder moved to New York Cityat agetwenty and painted allegorical scenes from his imagination. It is a stretch for Hartley to claim him for Maine, but that is how regional thinking sours. Pollack also claimed Ryder as an influence, but considered him the only American painter of note and, in his view, the antithesis of regionalism—a painter who broke free of the parochial traits that Pollack bristled against.
I understand Provincialism to be simply the inability, or conscious refusal, to see an artist in the large context of art history. It is usually associated with geographical isolation, physical remoteness, but it is more of a mental construct, a filter through which the world is viewed. As a mental artifice, provincialism is not confined to geography; there is also temporal provincialism, confining oneself to a time period, usually the present one. The allegiance to stylistic ghettos may be the most common provincialism.
Provincials, whether geographically isolated or isolated by their biases, are slow to get news from outside of their borders and may argue about controversies long settled elsewhere. In Maine, abstractionists and conceptualists battle the heirs of Andrew Wyeth and Fairfield Porter—a faint echo of the controversy surrounding the 1960, abstraction-dominated, Whitney Biennial. Provincialisms also overlap and reinforce each other. Sophistication and education do not guard against parochial thinking. And academia is home to some of the most remote outposts in art culture, completely cut off from the common populace, by language and habits of thought.
In addition to the provincialism of the provinces, there is also the provincialism of capitals and powerful nations, the belief that all of the culture the inhabitants require exists within their borders. The New York school, at the height of its prestige and influence, was a very small town. There are more galleries in Maine today than there were in New York in the 1950’s.
The critic Clement Greenberg is a good example of an art capital provincial. As a champion of the New York School, he defended himself against the charge that he was an ideologue by insisting that he was merely an empiricist, and that the best art of his day was flat and abstract. However, he only seemed to consider artists and galleries within walking distance, or a few subway stops. Europe did not seem to exist for Greenberg. He ignored the north European COBRA painters. Established artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Balthus were considered old news, though they continued to make often remarkable and relevant work until the end of their lives.
Hipness and cool are also provincial traps. This ideology ranks high all that is currently in fashion, and deems it the coolest. By always focusing on the present trend, the hip never seem to notice how cool the old stuff they ridicule or ignore once was. Related to this is Brooklyn provincialism, and all hip neighborhoods across America are being declared the next Brooklyn. It is a secret hid in plain sight that some of the best artists in Brooklyn have been working, in what is now seen as the style of the moment, for several decades.
Art capitals are often where great art can be seen but not necessarily where it is made. Those currently considered the leading artists of the late 19th century, though connected to the Parisian art capital, did their most significant work in Provence (the original province), Brittany and Tahiti. Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin define that era for us, yet were largely unknown to their Parisian contemporaries and the leading painters of that period are now mostly unknown. That is not to say that the Provencals knew what great painting was happening in their midst. And who can truly claim van Gogh—the Dutch, Parisians, Provencals—all of them and none of them.
Can Maine claim artists like Marsden Hartley? He painted landscapes in Europe and New Mexico and unscrupulous dealers sold his Bavarian mountainscapes as Maine scenes. Does a border really determine who is a Maine artist? The reputations of local artists loom large in their homelands, yet fall into the middle of the pack outside of those locales.
Hartley’s work and subject matter beg comparison with the Italian painter Mario Sironi, a great painter whose work is not well known in this country or even outside of Italy. Sironi was a fascist and so his reputation further suffers for his being on the losing side of World War II. He depicted poor workers in religious attitudes and his barren cityscapes are unquestionably close in spirit to Hartley’s landscapes. Architecture is a point of pride for the Italians, so the city is a nationalist expression of the genius of Italy. Sironi’s work and politics produce the same equivocal response that one might get from Hartley. Both are great painters whose work deserve to be seen and considered in the context of these thorny issues.
Do Italians need to know more about Hartley? Do Mainers need to consider Sironi? Clearly not, but expanding one’s horizons is never a bad thing. It can correct the biases inherent in a regionalist focus. I would reject regionalism, though not regionalist art. For the artist, subject matter based on their passions is laudable, maybe even necessary. But to view art through a regional filter is provincialism, dragging the work into the small context. I do not have to be a believer to appreciate religious art or gospel music, but I do expect the artist—on some level—to be a believer. Hartley professed a creed that many of us might reject, maybe even strongly, but the power of his belief produced authentic and powerful painting.
In the past, many artists came to Maine to paint the landscape, and I contend that by defining the region did a disservice to artists like Robert Hamilton, who did not make Maine paintings. Today, many artists live here for diverse reasons and work in a wide range of artistic styles. To view this art through any regional filter, is unfair to the artists who see themselves in the larger context. I still get a thrill driving over the Piscataqua River Bridge, but that has nothing to do with how I see art or make art.
—These images of my paintings represent a chronological order and represent the work that I feel is most directly influenced by my time here in Maine. There are other groups of works that deal with other issues and themes—Mary Armstrong, 2017
I first came to Maine to go to Skowhegan (then a school of Painting and Sculpture) in the summer of 1977. I returned as co-dean (with my husband-to-be Stoney Conley) in 1980 and then as faculty wife (Stoney taught fresco) in 1984-85. How lucky for us. The cosmopolitan nature of Skowhegan set us up, from the beginning, in a community of Maine artists and an International array of visitors that gave us a sense of Maine as a contemporary haven for all kinds of work.
We fell in love with each other and Maine at the same time. We were able to buy a little house on the coast at Georgetown in 1980.
For our first few decades we spent summer’s teaching-free months painting in makeshift studios. We lived a very solitary life of work. The only socializing was the occasional visit to Skowhegan for visiting artist’s lectures. Gradually we got to know some of the locals here in Georgetown. But, coming to Maine still means removing from the world, to focus, to work.
I think that there are several “Art Scenes” in Maine. We are so lucky to have the great regional museums and art centers, scattered throughout the state, that showcase really good work from artists working in Maine. I think these institutions keep us all on our toes, inspired and challenged.The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) is especially important for expanding coverage and scouring the state for ambitious talent.
For me, the most interesting statement and question that you pose is: “ Today’s art culture inhabits an international archipelago populated by the educated, well- traveled, and well- read. These like-minded individuals may have more in common with their counterpart’s half way around the globe than with their next-door neighbor. Can a regional style be authentic in this atmosphere, or is it bound to be a willfully naïve affectation?
I think It’s important to keep an open mind and a raging curiosity about what other artists are doing. Now, at this later stage, it is just as important for me to make work that closes the distance between where I am, what I think and feel about that, and how paint, as an embodying material, can explore that.
There is an important balance between the world and the work. But, ultimately, the deeper wells of inspiration come more and more from simply being….in the light of Maine and my imagination. Perhaps I am willfully naive. If that can be translated into moving with rigorous simplicity, I’ll take it!
“I was more interested in daily life, less melodramatic human interactions, poems of place, and glimpses of transcendence through ordinary things,” Karie Friedman said of her writing. Waldo County Poet, translator, editor, and founder of a poetry workshop group The Poets’ Table, Karie Friedman died of a sudden illness last week. Along with her two daughters and many friends, we pay our respects and honor her words. Work is in progress to publish her most recent collection of poems.
“Yes, the thought of poems that never got written, that I might have produced when my neurons were moving faster and my passions hotter, does sadden me. What a dope I was not to assert myself, etc. On the other hand, my peripatetic life, with its personal ups and downs and varied roles as a motorcycle tourist, back-to-the-lander, mother, faculty wife, truck dispatcher, landlady, and editor, plus a few others I haven’t mentioned, have fed my writing and continue to do so. Now that I’m underway, coming up on the age of Amy Clampitt when she published The Kingfisher, I’m making a run for it.”Karie Friedman
Catch N. C. Wyeth, Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1945.
Swamped by silver herring,
the dory is so full
it should be sinking,
but there’s no water-
line, no glint or splash
around its hull or those
of other boats nearby.
they float in a black
space that might
be wet or not.
All eyes of men and gulls
focus on the catch,
more luminous than coins.
It is a dreamlike haul
and we’re the dreamers,
hovering above, with a gull’s
eye view, drawn not by hunger
but by the allure of shine,
the amazing prospect
of wading knee-deep in light,
scooping it in a net.
Karie Friedman, 2016
To read more of Karie’s poems, and biography: https://kariefriedman.com/home/
When people talk about tragic events they often start with where they were and what they were doing as if by introducing the mundane back-story one could perform some crude magic and reverse the outcome. What this does is illustrate how our pact with the continuity of things has been ruptured and forever altered.
We follow our trail of breadcrumb memories, back to the time before.
I was on my couch when I heard the election results. The night before I went to bed with the stock market crashing, globally, and an electoral map turning red, like a wound, across the country.
One month later I drove into Manhattan at sunset with my husband. An oppressive, solid, cloudbank was low in the sky. Stopped in a long chain of traffic, we sat while the sun edged through from under the clouds. The city was backlit, darkened, and the low angle of the orange sun made harsh silhouettes out of the rows of cars, metal shells—the shadows between objects were like chasms. Looking to our left, there on the Major Deegan Expressway, Hell’s Gate Bridge was illuminated and glowing against the grey black world around. “An Apocalyptic sunset,” we agreed.
Did I remember then how the morning began when the handle on a full cup of coffee broke just as I handed it to my husband? Or did I remember that later, when all things became signs and portents.
That same night, just before midnight, an old friend had just left after a long dinner. My husband checked his phone because a call came through during the meal. We were sleepy, happy, tipsy—in good spirits. He listened to the message. “Its Simone,” he said and we both looked puzzled, she did not usually contact us. Our relationship to her was with, and through, Paul Oberst—Simone was Paul’s former wife, current friend, partner and collaborator. “She said to call as soon as I got this message,” he said, “is it too late?”
It was too late. We have never called anyone at midnight. But sensing, already, that this was not a usual call, without hesitation, I said no, it was not too late. I never say that. We were less sleepy, less tipsy.
What follows are images, both of us pacing, my husband just holding the phone, not speaking, then sitting down on the edge of the bed, silent and listening to the voice on the other end. “What is it?” I mouthed at him. “The worst,” he mouthed back, and kept listening, his eyes had the same look as on the day he saw the World Trade Center hit by the second plane, and then both towers crumble, from our rooftop, less than a half mile away.
Even then I did not know what I believed the worst to be. A dark road, a deer leaping flashed through my mind. A state of profound ignorance enveloped me. A few moments later I mouthed, “An accident?” now wide-awake and sober. He made one gesture that said it all, a common gesture children use: an extended thumb and forefinger pointed at his temple. It was no accident, and it was irrevocable.
Did I sleep or just lie in bed drifting in fragmented thoughts? The next morning I began to look through my correspondence with Paul, wondering what our last conversations had been, what had we been saying, were there signs? Certainly signs could now be seen in retrospect, signs that were obscured by the light of reason and belief in positive solutions to everyday or unexpected problems. And always, always assuming that despair was not an option.
I began slowly at first, and then methodically, to compile my email exchanges with Paul into a document. Starting at the beginning, following many twists of threads and tangents often several threads at a time. Over the course of hours, then days, I transcribed an 800-page document that spanned four years. My husband has a similar collection. During those years we also regularly shared studio visits and meals where we talked and carried on the conversations in person. Our correspondence covered a range of topics and moods from thoughtful and philosophical to silly, from analytic to bitchy, sometimes gossip, often poetic, ending days before my friend killed himself, and just as I arrived in New York.
What does this number, 800, mean to me in an age where numbers work at cross-purposes—Popular Vote vs. Electoral College? Paul had friends he had known for thirty years, or fifteen, one friend never met him but exchanged a meaningful note that moved her. And then there is his artwork, compiled and filling a measured space in the new studio he was building. His recent video had him measuring a section of beach. Numbers represent a need repeated, like three meals a day, or two aspirin.
To me the numbers meant continuity. Daily, and often several times daily, our emails exchanges became a voice narrating our lives. Paul, being a few years older, often took on a role of older brother, sage advisor and flat-out cheerleader. My correspondence with Paul continues now in my head, some days narrating events, describing an exhibit, something I read, or a fleeting thought. And times all I can say is “Dear Paul,” followed by a long silence, concluding with “Love Kathy.” Sometimes I repeat these lines, over and over, like a mantra.
We do not know what the next four years will bring. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at the start of the second Bush term; despair set in even when his voice would have been helpful to counter what was to come. Paul’s abrupt departure took some of the light out of the room at a time when we feel dark forces gathering. Will I look back to the events of this time and read them like tea leaves, an oracle, as a prophecy? Whatever is to come, I will always look back on this moment in time as silhouetted by a late fall sunset, not shedding light, but casting darkness and deepening shadow. A time when Hell’s Gate was illuminated.
Letters and fragments
from Paul Oberst to Kathy Weinberg
October 25, 2016
Sure is gorgeous at this moment with this sunrise. I just walked down the drive to appreciate my humongous pile of firewood. I can’t believe I have done that in such order. My peacock tail was in full display as I walked by it and picked up a stray stick to throw in the stove, which is stoked and running at this very moment. Life is good and graceful at this very moment.
Have a lovely day creating and being.
As for success, I was most successful as a child. All I really want and need to do is play like that and all is fine, and I do that at times and am going to work a lot harder at it from now on out. I think our culture is insane and at times I think somehow I am supposed to heal it. That is not possible. I can do a little counseling, I can be a shaman in the studio, and I can hang with my buds tearing it all asunder over a meal and drinks. And you know what. That is mighty fine my dear. Chin up. P
January 25, 2016
I’m caught in these streams of thought that are along the lines of, “Now why is it that this really matters?” I look around and for the most part I have rather efficiently organized my life and creations. Again the question is raised “Why?” It only matters if I am inspired. And I have been so inspired in this life. But I have learned not to avoid this current form of questioning knowing full well that such matters are best penetrated and explored fully.
May 29, 2015
Dear Kathy, You know, no matter how hard one works in an alternative way to one’s nature, the truth of one’s nature always comes through. I have always been drawn to black and to the mysterious. Death has always been fascinating to me. Even though I do banded poles of lovely colors, they suggest passage…passage to what, through what. The answer, LIFE. Back to the mystery, back to black. I take a set of dice and photograph them…dice, game! Light subject! Wrong! Luck. Death. Life.
I swear. It is insane. Kathy, when the dice are blown up…any of the out of focus images, the resulting mist of jet sprayed fine ink is so gorgeous my jaw drops…if only Seurat could have seen this printing…he would have stopped painting.
What a stunning day! Peggy Lee is in the background singing, but I can hardly hear her today. Paulo
May 27, 2015
Art is so damned hard. It is exactly like life. And at times it is so flawlessly graceful. Remember the Barnes Collection tour. Imagine the struggles that went into the creation of all those works. Imagine the struggles to exhibit it all! Sobering. It is like walking this warrior’s path of heart. Not for the faint of heart. But, there is no choice.
May 26 2015
There is a song by Peggy Lee that goes “Is that all there is to—“. And it goes from her childhood up to her mature years and then reflection on life at the very end. Is that all there is to a circus, is that all there is to life, etc. So, Simone and I call such days as today, “A Peggy Lee Day.” … It is irrational, art. IT defies logic. I defy logic.
December 13, 2014
Kathy my dear, one could argue that I am an arrogant son of bitch about my art….and the art of my friends. I just feel that what we are doing is sacred work, pure and simple. As long as it is sacred and speaks to the great and noble longings of humanity and creation, then the art world can kiss my scrawny ass. Their loss…surely not mine because I am making the shit no matter what. Sacred Shit. We make this shit because it brings balance to the world because creation deems it necessary to do so because it is the nature of our nature in resonance with nature.
July 9, 2013
Okay the gardens are now in peak performance…the fireworks of plant blossoms…the Day Lilies and the lavender spiked native Maine flowers and Black Eyed Susan. The Hosta is starting to bloom and so much more. The day lily are over 5 feet tall and each year get taller. The last picture is taken from the enclosed porch above the entrance door. Eventually the garden may all displace me.
“To paint, to write, to teach in the most dedicated and sincere way is the most intimate affirmation of creative life we possess in these despairing years.” — Philip Guston
In the midst of a darkness we can barely comprehend, in Nazi occupied Paris, the summer of 1944, Pablo Picasso paints a still life with a tomato plant. The stench of death is in his nostrils; his friends becoming victims of the horror—Max Jacob had died that March in a concentration camp, Robert Desnos was sent to a camp in Germany where he would die soon after liberation. The allies had just invaded Normandy, and the possibility of liberation was becoming a probability. Was this still life (a celebration of domesticity) a product of hope, now possible again, or a prayer for a return to dull normalcy? “May you live in interesting times,” says the Chinese curse.
At that time Picasso was still painting dark subjects, The Charnel House, still lifes with skulls, but also domestic scenes, like a child’s first steps. He had proven his chops at dealing with the rise of Fascism with his bulls, Minotaur, and of course with the Guernica mural. I had just revisited Guernica last year, after not seeing it since I was a teenager. Standing in front of it, I felt strangely unmoved. My thoughts about this famous work is not opinion, analytic art critique, it is just my honest assessment of how I actually felt in the presence of this piece. It was not that I was too familiar with the work, via reproduction; I know Picasso’s Vollard suite just as well and they rarely fail to move me. The imagery that would be distilled in the mural was worked through in numerous etchings, ink drawings and gouaches; a variety of narrative and symbolic combinations tried out. These intimate pieces seem to constitute a far richer body of work than the famous mural—a staged parade on a grand scale. The many depictions of the Minotaur, seducing, dying, blinded, remain profound and mysterious, the beast we fear in ourselves and in others. The screaming women of Guernica are masks worn by mute actors, representing fear, but do they make us feel it?
Our reactions to an artwork, though dependent on subjective conditions, even temporary moods, are an objective fact; if we are moved, we are indeed moved. Theodor Adorno observed that in the aesthetic realm, culture gets this entirely backward, and believes that objectivity, a reality beyond controversy, can only be established by impassioned, reasoned analysis. Yet the analyst is a person, with loves, hates, and all manner of biases, many too subtle to detect. That is why art, in its tangled embrace of the subjective, can often tell truths that elude the journalist, philosopher or historian.
The current socio-political crisis, global in scale, has caused much reflection in art communities. Everyone is affected, artists are not unique in that regard, but art does function at the intersection of the individual and culture. Mathematicians may be disturbed, yet it is doubtful that there can be a mathematical response to political questions. Yet artists have, in the past, created brilliant works, out of this confrontation with world events. Even works that get dismissed as escapism, fantasy, or retreat from reality, may offer a necessary counterweight, of beauty and freedom of spirit, to the realities of brutality and destruction.
We are entering an era defined by ugliness, ugly appearances representing ugly thoughts. From an aesthetic perspective, one evident characteristic of our new leader is just how ugly he is, as if his personality chose that face and demeanor to represent his overwhelmingly brutal spirit. His semi-conscious attempts at grooming only enhance the effect—the comb-over, baseball caps, ill-fitting suits and poorly knotted ties. From the deformed hump of Richard III to the insipid smile of Carlos IV, artists have turned the ugly, physical and spiritual ugliness, into artworks, a thing of enduring beauty. How this is achieved, is one of arts many mysteries, one that requires a severe honesty on the part of the artist to express what they truly think and feel rather than engage in didactic platitudes, or express what they think they ought to be feeling.
In order to navigate through the fog of the present, we commonly examine the past for parallels. Common character traits develop into archetypes. Where have we seen the spoiled and deranged son of privilege rise to power and rule as a demagogue and tyrant? For one, the Roman emperor Commodus, son of emperor Marcus Aurelius, seems to be the prototype of our current leader. He fancied himself a gladiator, dressed as Hercules with lion skin and club, and entered the arena to fight professional gladiators to the death. Not surprisingly, he never lost, at least not until he was assassinated.
But in our own recent history, one name has come up quite a bit; Richard Nixon, and, surprisingly or not, the comparisons are favorable to Nixon. Like so many tragedies conforming to this archetype, the hubris, ambition and overreach of this personality plant the seeds of their eventual downfall. But who has the time or patience to watch this whole story unfold in real time? It is the uncertainty that really eats at us, and we wonder and worry if this time the story might end differently. Will the tyrant be among the corpses when the final curtain comes down, or will he be the last man standing?
It was in 1971, in a similar state of agitation, that Philip Guston produced his masterful drawings about the rise of Richard Nixon, a series he called Poor Richard. At the height of Nixon’s power and paranoia, those who saw him clearly could not be confident that his crimes and ethical transgressions, some yet unknown, some hiding in plain sight, would catch up with him. What if he got away with it all, or worse, what if the attempt to erode rule of law, checks and balances, were made permanent, became a feature of the system that would prove impossible to reverse? Isn’t that the fear, which we have today, one that overrides all others?
In 1975 Guston did another set of Nixon drawings. The drama had played out according to the archetype; the tyrant destroyed by his own sinister ambitions. Guston depicts him in exile on the beach of his compound in San Clemente, brooding like Napoleon in Elba. He carries around a gigantic leg, afflicted with phlebitis, a fact Guston gleans from the newspaper. The giant leg, hairy, bandaged, with bulging veins, is bestial; the animal leg weighs down the crafty Machiavellian mind that served Nixon’s rise and fall. That mind, in all of Guston’s drawings, hides behind a Nixon mask, not his actual face. Those exaggerations, so well known to us, then and now, were even more exaggerated; longer nose, cheeks like scrotum with Nixon’s signature five o-clock shadow.
A show of Guston’s Nixon drawings was hastily put together, in the midst of the strangest presidential election cycle since 1968, so that it would open before election day. The show, titled Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975, opened on November 1st at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery that now represents the Guston estate, and ran through the inauguration. Both the works themselves, and Guston’s decision not to publish or show them in his lifetime, have much relevance for our parallel dark time, as we ponder what role the arts might play in this drama.
Not only were the Nixon drawings never published or exhibited in Guston’s lifetime, but the current show of around 180 works, features more than 100 works that have never been exhibited to the general public. Ironically these works are having a greater impact today, than they would likely have had if they were exhibited when the events referenced were current. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world when he painted Guernica, and was known to a large lay audience as well as art professionals. Guston’s fame in 1971 was limited to a cultured minority, and in the context of that minority, his late figurative works, which the Nixon series is part of, did not enjoy the reputation they have finally achieved. And the images that were affecting political opinion at that time were not ones made by painters, they were the photographs of napalmed babies, or police beating protesters in Chicago or Birmingham.
Guston’s decision to keep the Nixon series private may have been justified, but needs to be seen in the context of the other work he did make public and the reactions to that work. According to the mythology, Guston, after achieving some fame as an Abstract Expressionist—art sales, positive press and a solo show at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum—turned his back on abstraction, and created a body of work that was rejected by the New York art establishment. But it is important to keep in mind that this art establishment referred to in tales of the Guston drama was probably about two dozen artists, critics and curators—they just happen to be those who write the first draft of art history and art history is rarely sorted out until at least the third draft. The truth is that if you were not among the few hundred people who frequented 57th street art galleries in the 60’s and 70’s, you would not be aware that Philip Guston was firing his booming canon shot at the already crumbling walls of the New York School fortress, and it was not until a decade or so after his death in 1980, that news of that battle began to spread.
As for that now famous written history, there was the notorious scathing review by Hilton Kramer of Guston’s breakthrough 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery, but there were also less mentioned favorable reviews by Harold Rosenberg and David Sylvester. Of course we all remember one insult with far more clarity than we remember a litany of praise, so Guston’s reaction to his critics advanced the mythology that is in current vogue. Many artists that were still committed to the seriousness of abstraction were outraged by Guston’s work of the 1970’s, but de Kooning, always a fellow heretic within the church, easily adapted to the change in style and praised the work. It was in fact far less radical than it appeared to the casual observer; the late abstractions had dark masses that offer intimations of what would soon be explicit. And even in his abstract phase, in 1960, Guston made a case for the impurity of painting: “But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.” De Kooning once said that oil paint was invented to make flesh, and in his abstract works he continued to paint flesh. Guston’s abstractions, saturated with deep reds, were both flesh and blood, and more blood. There is the famous quote of his from the 70’s; “I was sick of all of that purity,” but clearly he was long sick of it.
The other thing that needs to be remembered and emphasized is just how much more dramatic these events seem from the narrow perspective of the New York School. London produced many prominent figurative artists—Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach—and the London-based Marlborough Gallery represented these artist when they took on Guston. In other American cities, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, the artificial membrane between “low brow” and “serious” art was far more permeable than in New York. Now artists like Peter Saul and R. Crumb are taken quite seriously in “high brow” circles. But Guston’s fame had come as a result of his abstract works, and as a member of the inner circle of Abstract Expressionist founding fathers (he was also a high school friend of Jackson Pollack). Not just a member of the congregation, a high priest, he proclaimed; “It was as though I had left the Church, …I was excommunicated.” That is only half right— he was not excommunicated—he was a heresiarch, a reformer, and nailed his thesis to the church door. Though criticized by those who clung to the high-minded principles of abstraction, he also attacked them: “American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit.”
It seems like he was energized by the conflict, which he did not wander into innocently. It is analogous to another famous “betrayal” in that tumultuous era, that of Dylan turning away from topical protest-songs, and going electric. In a strange way Dylan and Guston converged in creating very timely, yet personal expressions, but by rejecting opposite religious dogmas. Dylan had rejected the topical and overtly political and moved toward a more personal reaction to what he was experiencing. You can hear in the music and see in the concert footage that he seemed to draw power from the rejections, the booing. On stage in England, a former fan screamed “Judas!” Dylan turned to the band, later known as The Band, and commanded with a big grin, “play it fucking loud!”
Guston responded to his critics by keeping the volume up and breaking taboos. Like the dark-comic Dylan, Guston’s late works possess a wicked, mischievous spirit that add power to the mysterious iconography, images that emerge from a state of nervous tension, where the artist reflects the spirit of the culture as he feels it, not as he dispassionately reflects on it.
Guston’s Quinta del Sordo
It has been said that Guston kept the Nixon drawings to himself because he feared they would face similar criticism that his paintings were subjected to. A foray into the genre of the political cartoon, occupying a lower tier than “fine art” in cultural hierarchies, would further tarnish his reputation as a serious painter. But it is also likely that he too considered the political cartoon a lesser art form, and may not have been sure himself if these drawings were just cartoons, or works of art.
Guston also certainly had nuanced feelings about political art and propaganda, having made various forms of propaganda in his youth. As a young, left-leaning artist involved in the WPA, he made heavy-handed, didactic work that was typical of that period, and typical of youth, though he did it very well. Images of the Klu Klux Klan first appear in this phase. He also made illustrations of military training exercises for the war department during World War II. They are also beautiful and feel more humanistic, oddly less like propaganda—he did believe in the cause. The surrealist phase that followed these early works resemble the late works in that they deal with the political in a personal but also allegorical manner.
When Guston returned to imagery, he returned to the KKK, but this time, with a paintbrush in the hand of one hooded figure. Guston identified himself with what he cast his critical glance upon—in the same way that Picasso identified with bull, bullfighter, Minotaur and gored horse—they both identified with villain and victim. This is where art transcends mere propaganda; where artists show some truth about the world as it is, nuanced and ambiguous. The sincere artist avoids distorting simplifications—those sharp divides between good and evil, irresistible to the partisan.
We know Guston thought about posterity, where his paintings would lead: “The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. (What a sympathy is demanded of the viewer! He is asked to see the future links.)” We also know Guston was consumed by self-doubt (what great artist isn’t?). So we can assume that he questioned whether the Nixon drawings were a major link in his chain, or just some exercise, or perhaps a therapeutic purging of his political frustrations.
I would answer Guston’s ghost by saying that he may have been correct to hold the drawings back at the time. Yet posterity has unequivocally deemed them works of art, great ones, and not mere political cartoons. Their enigmatic qualities keep them from ever becoming didactic. In this decision to keep them private, one is reminded of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo, the house where he painted some of his most powerful, original images on the walls, completely out of public view. They would likely have struck Goya’s contemporaries as being too roughly painted, unrefined, and would not have been deemed any good, yet images like the Saturn Devouring His Children now define Goya for us. I believe that in a similar way, the Nixon drawings will be seen as an important feature of late Guston, and a major facet of that period’s output—if not a major link on the chain, a beautiful charm hanging from it.
Pantheon: The Latin Cult & the Grand Tour
The Nixon drawings are often compared to Goya, Daumier, Picasso, or to Beckmann (Beckmann’s timely works relating to the rise of fascism were also on display this past fall, in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum). One name that gets left out, but is an important precursor, is Tiepolo. We know Tiepolo was a significant artist in Guston’s personal canon, from his painting Pantheon. The painting is like a mathematical equation, summing up the parts of the whole that is Guston. The imagery, a blank canvas on an easel, and a lightbulb, are surrounded by the names of painters—de Chirico on the far left, then the easel, then in a column; Massacio, Piero…., Giotto, and finally Tiepolo, larger than all others. We know many artists are left out, but this outline shows the important lineage of the art in that chain Guston refers to.
Guston belonged to an important American art subculture, one that continued to look to the European tradition as a deep source from which all Western art flows. Italy was their Mecca and at least one pilgrimage was required, in the tradition of the Grand Tour. His polemic against the New York School was not just a rejection of abstraction, but also a rejection of the idea that American art can sever itself from its European roots. Members of Guston’s club—still going strong—do not have a secret handshake but recognize each other by certain habits; they use stove-top espresso makers and are on a first name basis with Piero della Francesca.
The lessons of Italy give the American artist an appreciation for beauty that many Puritanical strains of American art see as sinful. But this beauty is coupled with an unflinching eye for the folly and tragedy of human behavior. An Italian painter might paint a massacre of the innocents with a sword passing clear through a child’s head, yet render the soldiers’ armor in magnificent jewel tones and even the blood spraying from the baby’s mouth might appear as rubies. Tragic, yes, but also maybe a weird humor, like a Monty Python skit with fountains of blood spraying from a severed limb.
The Italians have also witnessed bare-knuckle politics since ancient Rome. They have witnessed numerous businessmen turned dictator, prince, and warrior Pope. There was a whole class of businessmen whose product was war, the condottieri— mercenaries. The Italian princes were the greatest art patrons the world had ever seen, yet they might murder each other in the cathedrals they helped build. Not just Italians, all Europeans, have witnessed too much history to share in that uniquely American positivism. But that positivism is a curse; while always looking toward that golden age to come, we just failed to appreciate the one that just ended, the age of Obama.
That European tradition, stretching back to antiquity, the dark humor, beautiful color, exquisite design, saturates all of Guston’s work, but in the late work it is hilariously transformed into modern, crappy, Americana. The attention to lace and buttons in Donatello and Verrocchio are transformed into shoe-laces and nails in shoe soles. Uccello’s obsession with the geometry of armor is referenced in trash-cans and lid shields. The light of the logos, Apollo, enlightenment, has become a bare lightbulb, swinging from a single wire, as if hanging from a thread.
In 1948 Guston received a fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome. On the ship to Europe, the Vulcania, he met Cranberry Island painter John Heliker, and the two became good friends. They traveled together to see the Piero della Francesca murals in Arezzo and also visited the ancient Etruscan tomb paintings in Tarquinia. After the famous Marlborough gallery show of 1970, where the late figurative paintings were introduced, Guston took a trip to Italy—a return to the source, the mother ship. It was on his return to America that he embarked on the Nixon series.
What is interesting about the iconography of the Nixon drawings is how they fit into the traditions of Italian painting, from the Renaissance to de Chirico. The use of attributes as signifiers—a baby in an animal skin would be John the Baptist, St. Catherine clutches her wheel, and St. Sebastian appears pierced with arrows—and so Nixon is identified by signature nose and cheek, sometimes abstracted into a mountain, a billboard, or transformed into a Roman trophy (homage to Piranesi as well as Tiepolo). Kissinger is often just glasses and hair, but in some drawings only a pair of thick glasses. Agnew, a pointy-peaked block-head, is also depicted with the attributes of Hawaiian shirts and golf clubs, the absentee vice-president/fool. The famous dog, Checkers, is a checkerboard pattern in a dog outline.
The Tiepolo I see in the Nixon drawings is the intimate and strange Tiepolo of his two suites of etchings, the Scherzi di Fantasia and the Varie Capricci. Tiepolo was the Cecil B. DeMille of the European palace wall, and his operatic dramas were filled with a retinue of extras from central casting: Orientals (Magi), Roman soldiers, satyrs, owls. In the etchings they become the main characters. But one in particular bears a striking resemblance to Guston’s Nixon mask; the masked Pulcinella. Visually they are both classic grotesques, but also thematically, Guston represents Nixon’s world as a dark circus, with Nixon as a twisted deformed carny. Kids and artists know how scary clowns really are, and Beckman, along with many others, portrayed fascism with circus imagery.
Guston’s imaginative power shows off in his Nixon carnival; witness Nixon with chopsticks and Fu Manchu mustache, as Nixon prepares for his historic China trip. Chinese imagery dominates many of these drawings—Guston was clearly obsessed by the China trip; it exposed the anti-communist crusader as an unprincipled opportunist. But through this hilarious Nixon as Chinaman subplot, Guston honestly explores the biases he might share with Nixon, both being a product of their times. In one odd drawing he gives Nixon measles, a sort of momento mori for the most powerful man in the world. Throughout this very modern Commedia the Pulcinella has been completely Americanized—the carny barker, snake oil salesman, confidence man tricksters of our rootless mythology. Yet throughout it all, this slippery enigma at the center never takes off his Nixon mask.
This is not funny
The circus is now back in town. The saddest, sad clown, Dr. Kissinger/Strangelove has blessed the 45th president. According to the Obama State Department, three Americans have recently had unfettered access to Putin’s Kremlin; current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, actor Stephen Segal, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (in his recent role as a consultant for Exxon Mobil). The new president, thug, prince is surrounded by military men, his condottieri, yet his brass plate aesthetic will yield no art patronage, quite the opposite—casinos, not cathedrals—all sin, no salvation.
I remember a Nixon aide once saying that, contrary to what one might believe, Nixon did have a sense of humor. Though he rarely laughed according to the aide, he would say, “that’s funny.” The situation we now find ourselves in is not funny, not funny at all. But does that mean humor is no longer an option? Can we still laugh? Perhaps a nervous laugh, or cathartic, hysterical laughter. Guston’s creepy, dark sense of humor, on full display in the late works, is a beacon in such times. Not a beacon of hope (is there cause for hope?) but an antidote for the poison of contemporary public discourse.
Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, wanted the Nixon drawing show to open before the election, in the hopes that it might exert some influence, remind young voters about the Nixon era. But art speaks to a small minority of a small minority in its own time. Over time, it picks up mass as a snowball rolling uphill. The importance of art is the message it sends to the future. Art illustrates a culture, how it looks and how it thinks. Who knows the name Giuliano della Rovere? As Pope Julius II, the “warrior pope”, he commissioned the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel. But we do remember Michelangelo. Artists write history, but they write it in images. Guston’s legacy is as a fabricator of images.
Featured Image at top:
Philip Guston Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, Ink on paper, 26.7 x 35.2 cm / 10 1/2 x 13 7/8 in