Véronique Plesch – Introduction
Once you start thinking about “marks and tracks,” you realize they are all around us: marks glaciers incised millions of years ago on the stone ledge, tracks left by organisms or by vehicles as they move through the landscape, signs of use inscribed on objects and habitations, even monuments commemorating moments or figures from the past that insert tangible reminders of history into the urban fabric. Our bodies as well are marked by life, by scars and wrinkles, along with the voluntary mark of a tattoo. Records of activity and more fundamentally of existence, marks are at the core of art making.
This issue of the Maine Arts Journal is the opportunity for a novel and exciting collaboration with the L.C. Bates Museum, currently holding its 2021 summer exhibition on the same theme (due to the pandemic, the exhibition is virtual). Among the artists participating in the L.C. Bates show—all from Maine or with significant ties to the State—many are present in this issue and, thanks to this partnership, the journal offers the occasion to many more artists to pursue the reflection initiated at the museum. In the exhibition review he wrote for this issue, Carl Little gives us a taste of the many ways in which the theme can be interpreted, accomplishing the remarkable feat of mentioning each of the 33 artists in the show.
The artists in this issue and in the exhibition demonstrate how the linked concepts of “marks and tracks” are endowed with an extraordinary semantic richness, which allows them to resonate in multifarious ways: thematically, iconographically, and symbolically. In a literal manner as well, the theme offers an occasion for artists to reflect on their artistic practice and the ways in which they engage with their chosen materials, leaving marks that record their creative activity. With these marks, they also make their process visible, and thus offer a meditation on the very ontology of artistic creation. Several of the contributors reflect on the passing of time, as they go back to the past and further to the future, and many do so with apprehension as they consider the Anthropocene’s mark on the planet.
Alan Bray and Todd Watts discuss what “marks and tracks” mean to them in process and content: for Watts, the physicality of mark making and for Bray, the iconography and the “compelling narrative” of “marks and tracks on the landscape.” Despite their different media (Bray paints with casein on panel, Watts is a photographer), they find commonalities: they both work slowly; Watts layers photographic elements (sometimes “70 or 80 layers at play”) and Bray piles up minute marks. In their conversation, time emerges as an important element, which intersects with space—the artist’s marks or those depicted activate space but also bear witness to past actions—but not always, since, as Bray notes: “Marks and tracks leave traces on their way to oblivion and most often that is the source of my work.”
From Bray’s expansive vistas we descend to Lisa Kellner’s close-ups of the ground (and, in earlier works, of the skin). For her as well, layering is central to her subject matter and to her process. She draws from the “accumulation of forms and strata amassed together into one beautiful, chaotic jumble” that she observes in nature and transcribes into her paintings, piling up gestural marks, aiming to convey “that multi-sensory experience of lying down on the earth and just being.” The accumulation of matter (both organic and non-organic, as she addresses the impact of trash on the environment) is for Kellner the result of “living, dying, and everything in between” and thus “the history of the land itself.” Art itself, she concludes, is a way of leaving our mark in the world.
Joël LeVasseur returns to his roots in the Saint John River Valley, a place marked by glaciers and human activity (his epigraph mentions the “desecration of a landscape”). For LeVasseur, the landscape is also marked with personal and familial memories (his father was a lumberjack). The landscape brings forth these memories and feeds his own current work in which he explores themes “of loss, memory, and abandonment.” In both his aerial views and his abstract mixed media, the landscape becomes a palimpsest that bears witness to the passing of time and of past activities, while also becoming emblematic of loss, as LeVasseur “mourn(s) the ongoing loss of trees, farms scorched in the name of culture, and realities of socio-political development.”
Nancy Manter also starts her essay with her Maine childhood memories, in an area shaped by geological forces that in turn impact her paintings. Her abstract work displays tectonic shifts as fluid streaks of color spread across the pictorial field, with caesuras rupturing it like fault lines, the color scheme and abrupt contrasts in value suggesting intense weather patterns interacting with the environment—sea, rocks, vegetation. Manter finds her starting point by conjuring up “Emotional, visual, and muscle memory.”
For Henry Wolyniec as well, layering was the rule of the game. Jessica Tomlinson recounts how he would use his Vandercook press as a “collaborator,” “building up and manipulating layers of material on the print bed.”
During the summer, Christine Higgins makes multimedia works that “reflect abstraction in the natural world.” Her hand-made materials—a range of fibers, some raw, some dyed, other processed into paper—are intensely tactile and their handling produces results that are textural and vibrantly pigmented. For her too, the issue’s theme prompts reminiscences about her childhood and Scandinavian ancestry. Higgins remembers trips back to the old country, of learning about bomarken, ancient marks that appear throughout the landscape and the built environment. As she incorporates them into her artwork, her ancestral roots resonate into the present.
Although void of human presence, Jeff Epstein’s oil paintings display the “evidence of human activity”: the marks left by vehicles on snow, mud, or blacktop are thus clues of a past mundane event. Epstein’s pictorial surface itself contains traces of the artist’s painterly activity. Through them, we become privy to his handling of the medium and witness, as it were, his own actions, which are recorded—indeed embedded—in “the physical material of the paint.”
In a conversation, Bradley Borthwick and Véronique Plesch discuss the many ways in which Borthwick’s work engages with the issue’s theme, starting with the marble relief he carved for the L.C. Bates show. Borthwick talks about how chisel marks on an ancient Roman monument become a source of inspiration and a connection to those who left them two millennia ago. We become aware that, as we see marks and leave our own, what is at stake is how we relate to the past. This relationship is not a simple one, as no artifact reaches us unscathed without bearing the marks of time. Indeed, history imprints the landscape, and Borthwick discusses a few projects in which he inscribes his actions into a place.
Taking Natasha Mayers’s work in the L.C. Bates show as a springboard, Véronique Plesch considers the body, and in particular the skin, as the site for marks: military decorations and tattoos, but also wounds, scars, bruises, and wrinkles—all biographical records of sorts, but remarkably ambivalent ones, as they bear witness to bravery but also to suffering. In the course of her essay, Plesch surveys the history of tattooing and its perception in different cultures, along with the significance of the skin in anthropology and psychoanalysis, and includes examples of artworks by Oskar Kokoschka, Marsden Hartley, and Isamu Noguchi.
From Montana, near the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn, to the Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland, where his Jewish ancestors lived, Robert Katz reflects on how monuments and celebrations mark past events but also reveal the contradictory ways in which these events are perceived, depending on who creates such commemorative devices. To these deliberate readings of the past, Katz opposes what he calls “silent witnesses”: “artifacts not yet recovered by the archaeologists” that have risen to the surface of the land. Better than any commemorative gesture, these objects, along with marks on the land such as ruins, mounds, and depressions, allow for a profound understanding of the past, as they “reveal layers of a story.”
As they file their quarterly archival excavation, Tony and Pat Owen evoke the clues from the past that they see in the Irish landscape, in particular, the “standing stones” that “stood the test of time.” The Owens address the issue of superimposition of cultures—especially poignant when the layering is done with the intention of eradicating the memory of earlier ones—and of commemoration, in particular that of problematic events. This leads them back to 1992 and the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas as they remember a UMVA exhibition that called “for a universal reckoning” of hegemonic behavior and resulting inequalities and, along with it, a recognition of what had been silenced and obliterated.
As poetry editor Betsy Sholl explains, there are “daily, incidental marks.” In Carl Little’s poem, we are invited to think about an unmade bed as a landscape marked by the sleeper. As the bed is made in the morning, the memory of the night is erased. In his poem, Gary Lawless takes us through time and space as he evokes landmarks that commemorate moments in time, in places such as Istanbul, Delphi, and Venice.
In essence, writing is mark making. Stuart Kestenbaum likes the intimate and physical act of editing a printout by hand, indeed marking it. He details the meditative effects of writing out letters with dots, one by one. As he performs this idiosyncratic activity, letters become physical—almost bodily—entities and he simultaneously experiences a connection to ancient scribal practices and an enhanced awareness of the page. Thus, at the intersection of time and space, he feels “like a Torah scribe, adjusting my letters to accommodate the line and the page.”
This connection to the past through mark making is at the core of Marcie Jan Bronstein’s essay, in which she comes to terms with the loss of people dear to her. Bronstein’s ghostly watercolors, made with pigments mixed with salt, capture the transience of life and allow the artist to flow through “the river of Life and Love and Loss.”
It might be a cliché to say that people who count in your life leave a mark and that this mark lives on after their death, but this is exactly what we read in Alan Crichton’s reminiscences of Joe Ascrizzi. Transformational experiences as well leave lasting marks, as is the case for a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Crichton reviews the exhibition that recently took place at the Maine Jewish Museum, which gathered 15 Maine artists who all spent time at the fabled institution.
Our quarterly Members’ Showcase includes work by eight artists. Nancy Bixler’s mixed media abstraction suggests geologic strata deposited over time while its title, Exclusion Zone, hints at the results of environmental recklessness. A similar palimpsestic quality appears in André Benoit’s works that recycle plywood used during construction of military vessels. As the weathered panels welcome a parade of animals and figures, the ludic is superimposed onto the martial. Joanne Tarlin shares a painting and poem that together evoke a shimmering world. Elaine McMichael captures textures, which she observes close-up or from a distance. Maury Colton looks back on works that combine cryptic charcoal marks with areas of color, and that found, in Colton’s felicitous phrase, their “incubation points” in history and migration across space of the Roma, as well as in geologic formations. Karen Adrienne shares one of her monotypes, the result of a process that involves folding and printing and that expresses her “direct concerns for nature”(statement for the L.C. Bates show). As Diane Dahlke stresses how the mark that each brushwork represents is the result of a decision, we look at her close-ups of rocks and vegetation with new eyes, each mark becoming a trace of the artist’s choices. Finally, with Leslie MacVane’s exploration of “marks that are made by reflecting light,” we are reminded that photography is nothing else but making marks with light.
Reporting on the activities of the Mid Coast Salon, Gianne Conard announces the forthcoming show Art Matters at the UMVA Gallery @ Portland Media Center. Meghan Quigley Graham and Louis-Pierre Lachapelle recount the collaboration between the Portland Museum of Art, the Portland High School, and the Artists’ Rapid Response Team. They highlight the experience’s take-aways for the future of art education and the role art museums can play in their community.
Other regular features include updates from ARRT! (the Artists’ Rapid Response Team) and LumenARRT!, with a sampling of their recent banners, video projections, and collaborations as well as news of future initiatives. You can also read about the latest Maine Masters film, Natasha Mayers: An Un-Still Life, its reception, forthcoming screenings, and impact. Finally, the Portland chapter of the UMVA reports on their busy schedule of exhibitions, both online and in-person.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Summer 2021 cover (Alan Bray, Northern Boundary, casein on panel, 8.5 x 11 in., 2019).