“If you look closely / you can trace / the tracks of my tears,” sang Smokey Robinson and the Miracles back in 1965. If you look closely at the work of the 33 artists in Marks and Tracks, the L.C. Bates Museum’s 2021 summer exhibition, you can what Colby College art history professor Véronique Plesch refers to as records of activities and “perhaps more fundamentally of existence.”
You may have to look very closely: part of the beauty of this show lies in its openness to the interpretation of its presiding subjects. While referencing glaciers, tree rings, and animal and human vestiges in their introduction, Colby College curators Whitney White and Carissa Yang, class of ’21, with Plesch’s guidance, were clearly prepared to think outside of the thematic box. Together, they put together a wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and eye-pleasing collection.
Within that eclectic and engaging assortment, certain common traits emerge. For example, several artists highlight changes in the landscape brought about by humans—the tracks and marks we make upon this Earth. Perfect example: Michel Droge’s dream-like meditation on the remnants of the Katahdin Iron Works in Brownville.
John Woolsey’s Sandpit likewise finds comeliness in a site of extraction. The painting brought to mind Dennis Pinette’s studies of the dunes of sand stored alongside Maine highways. These painters engage us in a vision of disfigured landscapes uplifted.
Nina Bohlen’s two black-and-white monotypes, fittingly titled Tracks and Marks, also conjure places changed by intrusion; the former, a road/path in the woods, the latter, stumps of sawed trees. Created from her imagination, the pieces are studies of light and dark.
Gardens get their due in the exhibition. Janice Anthony’s Passing Disturbance III, 2010, features a topiary maze threatened by a fire. In her artist statement, she notes her interest in “portraying the interactions of formal design with the wildness outside the garden.” Two of Christine Higgins’s photo intaglio monoprints reveal the radiant light in gardens, while Joël LeVasseur uses actual soil in his mixed-media tributes to his late brother’s last garden in Mexico, Maine.
John Meader’s Chain—Overgrown is among the most powerful images of human impact in the show. The iron links embedded in the gnarly tree bark conjure subjugation even as they represent nature absorbing our cruel disturbance.
Other artists represent the marks and tracks found in nature. Nancy Barron offers a study of lichen on rocks while Elizabeth Awalt riffs on pools of water (fittingly in watercolor). Nancy Manter turns to Flashe paint and charcoal for her abstractions, inspired by a range of natural and unnatural environments.
A variation on this: Alan Crichton’s The TokRocks Project, a group of 11 engraved rocks affixed to a painted wooden tray. Crichton found the various small rocks on walks around Liberty, Maine, and etched and painted them with individual markings, some of which resemble ancient petroglyphs (and recall the rock paintings of Joseph Fiore). He transforms them into talismans.
In a similar vein, Maury Colton’s three acrylic and charcoal pieces evoke, in the artist’s words, “the fractures, clefts, strata, and textures that hint at a language and reveal the history of seismic change.” They take their place in the rich continuum of abstract painters that includes the likes of Mark Tobey and Michael Loew.
For pure invention, consider Abbott Meader’s Western Interior and the Melting of the Glaciers, where an arctic landscape floats above a scaffolding of organic and industrial shapes—not hell, but an intriguing netherworld. Todd Watts brings an equally singular approach to his photographs, manipulating light, space, and color to create animated compositions. And don’t miss Amanda Lilleston’s “superorganism,” Supine, a woodcut collage of dark beauty.
Sometimes it’s not so much the subject as the execution of the artwork that provides the thematic connection. Take the multitude of brushstrokes found in Joe Haroutunian’s lush and layered paintings, which might be cross-sections from archaeological digs. Likewise, the sinuous calligraphic lines in Abby Shahn’s Fibroid represent mark-making of the finest abstract kind. Amy Ray’s dazzling ink pieces underscore her observation: “A single mark can say so many different and divergent things.”
In some cases, one needs to don marks—and tracks—colored glasses to see the connection of an artwork with the theme. For example, Joel Babb’s astonishing panorama, Rome from the Palatine Hill, Arch of Titus to the Arch of Septimius Severus, does not telegraph its relationship, yet his statement confirms one’s reading of the painting as a record of historical/cultural change where the traces of an ancient city remain embedded in the contemporary vista.
By contrast, Jeff Epstein’s paintings of skid marks on Maine roads fit the thematic bill to a tee. Like the somewhat controversial 2006 video Tire Tracks, which documented laying rubber on Deer Island, Epstein celebrates these asphalt graffiti artists.
At the Zoom opening for the L.C. Bates Museum show, which is virtual for the second year in a row, several of the featured artists offered thoughts on their practice and how their work responds to the world. At one point, Plesch, the event’s moderator, noted how marks and tracks can be bad and good.
Such is the case with Natasha Mayers’ Tattoos on Wounded Torso, where a limbless scarred body displays various tats, including the classic “Mom” in a winged heart. The medals on the bluish skin brought to mind the scene in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun when the generals pin a medal on Joe’s mutilated body, and he thrashes around trying to convey his disgust.
Reviewing a virtual exhibition, even with excellent reproduction values, leaves out a key element of the work under scrutiny: the surface textures. The detail in Holly Berry’s remarkable basswood relief Pollinator Paisley and the carved feathers of Bradley Borthwick’s stunning marble Ara Pacis cannot be fully appreciated.
Nor can the online viewer relish the gusto application of oil in Sharon Yates’s cow paintings, the extraordinary brushwork in Alan Bray’s temperas, or the “reciprocal relationship” between the folded and printed components of Karen Adrienne’s dynamic monotypes. And the artist books, Abby Shahn’s and Véronique Plesch’s mixed media ongoing “non-verbal conversation” Our Book and Bonnie Bishop’s coptic constructions with mono and silkscreen prints and letterpress poems, lose something in digital translation—not their spirit, fortunately.
That said, the curators have organized an excellent online display. Scroll down the opening presentation and wonder at the range of modes and manners, from Stephen Burt’s ornate Old Master renderings of letters to Nancy Bixler’s mixed media syntheses “of natural history and human imagination,” from the mark-making in Avy Claire’s #theworldisamessyplace acrylics to the “polarities of beauty and decay” in Carol Eisenberg’s mixed-media studies of the natural world.
Maggie Libby starts her artist statement with a Native land acknowledgment, reminding us that Wabanaki tribes were Maine’s first markers and trackers. Her descriptive charcoal drawing, Mapping the Sandy River at Its Source and Upper Section, “interconnects geological marks of the Ice Age with the indigenous presence of the Wabanakis, their use of the Sandy as a means of travel, and subsequent diaspora and displacement by white settlers.”
One of the pleasures of the L.C. Bates Museum’s summer show is its recurring focus on interior Maine—there’s nary a crashing wave, island, or lighthouse in sight. At the same time, many of the featured artists make their homes in rural parts of the state—Blanchard, East Sumner, Whitefield, North Lubec, and Sangerville. One envisions artists scattered across the state, in their studios or out on the land, trying to make sense of the marks and tracks of the world around them. You can trace the tracks of my smiles.
[The exhibition, along with the artists’ statements and a recording of the virtual opening, is available online.]
Image at top: John Meader, Chain—Overgrown, digital photograph, 18 x 12 in., 2015.