Skowhegan School Artists, Maine Jewish Museum, 13 May–25 June 2021
Artist Juliet Karelsen has curated Skowhegan School Artists, 15 individuals, including herself, who attended or taught at the Skowhegan summer residency from 1949 to 2019. That’s 70 years of Skowhegan’s 75-year existence (1946–2021), and though the institution is actively promoting the current anniversary, Karelsen was independently invited to curate this show by MJM’s dedicated and lively director, Nancy Davidson, whose passion and enthusiasm for Portland’s visual arts is legendary.
All these artists share a common Jewish heritage, and though I do not, as a 1982 Skowhegan participant myself, I look back to the transformational nine-week experience to find the exhibit’s common threads that changed our creative selves in remarkable ways—a spiritual awakening of a different kind!
Those nine weeks were intense bliss: totally supported freedom to work endlessly, succeed and fail passionately, experiment with abandon, seek and share the edge, be both validated and stung, re-assess and work again even more intensely for the breakthrough that might appear in the next moment. The evenings’ revelries, the music, costume balls, and dancing filled out the rhythm of those precious and magical days. One never knew what discovery would fill the next beat.
And so, one looks in this exhibit for those bright moments, for that sense of expectation, that freshness of discovery, as the thread tying the artists together across time, religious heritage, subject, technique.
Naomi Safran-Hon’s large multimedia abstraction, Dreams in Purple, appears to be a painted image with 3-D accretions that have oozed and solidified from the surface. On closer inspection, much of the image is photo-based and appears sourced from pictures of long-ago, broken or bombed walls. Safran-Hon knows such things well, having lived most of her life in the Wadi Salid neighborhood of Haifa, Israel. The intensity of homelessness, the lack of human image, the suggestion of bombing, and its ragged remainders, make this work, abstract as it is, the rawest and political piece in the exhibit. Beneath these ragged surfaces lie tragic histories, it says.
Natasha Mayers’s painting, Innerglow (2020), is a large head in red/magenta energy that radiates almost alarmingly. With lips puckered in a kiss, eyes both closed and open amidst a passion of color, neck bedecked with random flowers, this wheel’s on fire, my friends, and the viewer feel the heat.
Lauren Cohen’s small, intensely painted, luminous grids seem to be tightly woven cloth at first, but on very close inspection, reveal astonishing brushwork and color intricately meshed like fine stitched thread—a surprising metaphor.
Curator Karelsen’s works, Flowers Bees Love, must be seen through a circular magnifying oculus embedded in the top of a tall white rectangular column. Leaning over closely, one peers into other worlds of the infinitely reflected leaves and stems of deep red poppies and mixed bouquets—tissue paper flowers that will “live” forever as art, always reminding viewers to be aware of the flowers’ living counterparts that “bees love.”
Alex Bradley Cohn paints a portrait of Luke Carlson in broad strokes and planes with little detail, but with the distinct sense of the vulnerable awareness of the sitter whose wide eyes look off to the right in shy but friendly, open surprise.
Gail Spaien’s austere and mysterious glowing paintings exist in a rare atmosphere evocative of the tightly held space of early American pattern painters but with the close, luminous color harmonies of a Paul Klee. They feel scientific, primitive, and enthusiastically held in check all at once.
There are many other wonderful artworks in this exhibit.
Skowhegan attracts artists who have a burning need to say something with their work and their lives. The summer program is an immersion in kicking out all the stops, in finding how to do that, and then doing it for the rest of your life.
Image at top: Naomi Safran-Hon, Dreams in Purple, acrylic, gouache, lace fabric, cement and archival inkjet print on canvas, 61 x 53 in.