In 1498, Albrecht Dürer, ever the savvy businessman, decided to capitalize on the millennial fears rekindled by the approaching year 1500 and produced a luxury book with woodcuts based on the Book of Revelation. The Four Horsemen, the set’s most famous image, is eerily resonant for today’s viewer, especially in the early months of 2022. We see four riders: Death, who appears as an emaciated old man on a similarly emaciated horse, Famine who holds empty scales, War brandishing a sword, and Conquest with a bow. Their mortiferous cavalcade spares no one: they trample men and women from all walks of life. In our own times, with an on-going “pestilence,” the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February and war raging since then, democracies threatened, if not downright flouted, in far too many countries, an environmental apocalypse always more tangible and indisputable, how can we not feel that our world has descended into the chaos of dystopia? For this issue (planned well before the war in Ukraine), we asked our contributors to tell us how, as things fall apart, they see their role as artists. Does their art provide a cathartic outlet or does it ring alarm bells? In spite of such cataclysmic times, how does one maintain hope? Can one steadfastly hold on to ideals and express them in one’s art? Can one, in an answer to this unraveling, develop a positive vision? In other words, how does one envision utopia in the face of dystopia? As we read our contributors’ responses, we can take comfort in the fact that art, more than ever, has a function to fulfill. In so doing, the artwork and essays gathered here affirm the fundamental values upon which the Union of Maine Visual Artists was founded. As Pat and Tony Owen remind us, from its very inception the UMVA “held to the belief that all would be well in the world of art, as long as the community was recognized—a community of artists and art lovers, those individuals who believed that art in all its forms was something to be respected and cherished.” A dream perhaps, but also the “personal utopia” of the Union’s founding father Carlo Pittore. Indeed, this vision is still alive, clearly spelled out in the Union’s mission statement, “dedicated to upholding the dignity of artists, while creating positive social change through the arts.”
Bettering the condition of artists and ushering societal change through art resonates in this issue’s first contribution by “artist and organizer” Jordan Seaberry, who makes “paintings and policies in equal measure.” The policies Seaberry fights for “are extensions of the paintings, and the paintings are generative spaces for organizing.” Indeed, for him, political and artistic activity are “two woven threads” that find a meaningful embodiment in his melding painting and collage. A student of Black history, he compares the way his work unfolds to social movements. He creates works that are the product of a lengthy process of layering, of adding and obscuring, of excavating and erasing—a metaphor for Seaberry’s aim to give voice to forgotten voices.
Janice Kasper as well gives voice through her art to those who “cannot speak for themselves” (in her case, wildlife) and hopes to encourage others to take action. Kasper paints in response to events (in particular, those threatening the environment) that make her “blood boil.” Her paintings express in no uncertain terms the anthropocene’s responsibility and how, as one of her titles state, we hold our future In Our Hands.
Cecilia Ackerman’s primeval forests are inhabited by shadows in which subtle details shift the viewer’s perception. For Ackerman, utopias are “uncannily idyllic versions of our world.” Not only do utopias “have the potential to reflect our flaws,” but her depictions of a “garden of delights,” at once nostalgic and oneiric, are “places where the childlike and the feminine are valued and where non-human beings are foregrounded.”
As the assessment of a ravaged dystopian present and the dream of a better future, utopia is a projection. Donna Festa’s portraits are more than an inquiry of her sitter’s features, but a profoundly empathetic projection into their psyches. Introduced by a simple dictionary entry, Festa’s contribution reminds us that empathy is an indispensable tool for redressing the ills of the world. Utopia must come from a place of compassion.
That those ills that befall us are of our own making is what Stephen Burt has been confronting in a series of ink drawings personifying greed, ignorance, xenophobia, fascism, hate, and many other such “warriors for injustice, . . . purveyors of pain, . . . cultivators of chaos.” In a regular practice that he has carried on for several months, Burt inventories these dragons, believing that in order for us “to see them[,] we have to acknowledge our part in keeping them alive and healthy.”
Carl Little discusses the series of paintings and drawings that Jessica Gandolf started during what she refers to as “the wrenching events of 2020.” As Gandolf explores “vulnerability in the face of threatening events,” she creates intensely colored paintings and graphite drawings, which feature lower torsos under attack by abstract patterns. The body part she chooses to focus on is full of resonances for Gandolf, a yogini, for this is where the first three chakras are located, “which broadly address safety, creative expression, and the power of transformation.”
In this time of intense division, Ed Beem feels “increasingly drawn to artists who seek to transcend the categories, to bridge the ideological gap with a higher consciousness.” Beem reports on conversations with Charlie Hewitt about his “Hopeful” billboards; Rob Shetterly on his Americans Who Tell the Truth series; Alan Magee on his monumental paintings of medieval helmets, “emblems of a system of beliefs”; Lesley Dill and her “visionary wardrobe of spiritual effigies” of historical figures informed by current events; and Daniel Minter, whose assemblages address past and present African-American conditions.
How does one react when confronted with a deadly disease, especially when it further marginalizes a group? “[H]ow can community and creativity help in healing?” This question was the impetus for a workshop for people living with HIV/AIDS that the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts ran from 1992 until 2004. Lynn Duryea recounts the “emotional healing” that took place there and her “profound experience and great gift of living and working with people with HIV/AIDS,” indeed describing a utopia of sorts: a compassionate community in the face of a dystopian health crisis.
In her “Art Historical Musings,” Véronique Plesch considers utopian projects and their relationship to the arts. She singles out examples that involve a retreat from society and others that rest on an active engagement with it. She notes the profoundly utopian dimension of modern artistic avant-gardes—but not only, for she identifies the same drive in earlier times, for instance, in medieval religious orders and their architecture.
Richard Brown Lethem considers Philip Guston (whose major retrospective slated to open in 2020 was postponed by several museums because of paintings with Ku Klux Klansmen) and places him in conversation with Giorgio de Chirico. Lethem reflects on the life and work of these two artists in a back and forth between today and the 1950s and the 1960s, as he quotes from his own diary. Troubled times resonate across decades.
Middle School Teacher Lee Chisholm reflects on his teaching history and science and in particular of talking about climate change. He notes that “young people ‘get’ it,” and that for them, the awareness of the environmental situation “fires compassion and outrage” and prompts these young people to take to the streets to demonstrate with the banners they created.
Things Seemed to Be Breaking, the title of Stuart Kestenbaum’s most recent book, echoes the title of this issue. Composed during “our national descent into darkness,” the book gathers what Kestenbaum calls “blackout poems,” in which, having appropriated a page of printed text, he finds “the essential words to respond to,” conceals the rest of the text with a sharpie, and responds with a few stamped words. Echoing many of the contributors to this issue, Kestenbaum asks: “What difference can art make when we are facing darkness?”
Evoking greed, consumerism, and environmental disaster, poet Claire Millikin, offers a meditation “on capitalism, sexism, art, and photography, entwining with the idea of things falling apart.” Similarly, in a poem titled “The Future,” Linda Buckmaster envisions the nefarious effects of global warming and melting ice caps. Her epigrams (from the Book of Genesis and an Algonquin creation story) oppose the beginnings of this world to a not so improbable future, in which “the American dream lies drowned,” leaving room for new species and for nature to reclaim its rights.
Photographer Todd Watts facetiously dreams on an airship and meditates on solace, which for him is neither utopian nor dystopian, but a bridge of sorts between the two, while Matt Blackwell expresses his “reaction to policy’s absurdity” by imbuing his works with humor and affirming his belief, that despite the distressing times, he still believes in democracy. For Blackwell, “Half A Utopia Will Do” (which is the title of his contribution). In the face of “the urgency of our times,” Val Porter suggests that utopia—”peace, choice, creative expression, freedom, and hope”—can happen right here and now in our society and within ourselves. Perhaps, then, artistic activity can teach us how to behave in the world and work towards a better society. As Joanne Tarlin puts it, “painting is an act of self-determination and liberation.” The works in this “Members’ Showcase,” by Blackwell, Porter, and Tarlin, all compellingly display bold experimentation, a willingness to take risks with the medium: the artistic process can teach us indeed how to be in the world.
Considering how “in the early 21st century, the contemporary American landscape has gone well beyond the pastoral” and “become hyper-polarized and politicized,” Peter Buotte revisits famous paintings. The awe-inspiring Niagara Falls of 19th-century paintings becomes Falls of Conspiracies,” its waters lined with specious soundbites. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is turned into a Sinking Raft, laden with figures from the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol and emblematic of the fate of US democracy. Laura Waller addresses the same events, visually quoting moments and figures forever associated in our minds with that day. Riffing on Picasso’s famous response to the 1937 bombing of a Basque town, her series America’s Guernica?—the question mark is critical—asks “[could] this attack on America be a warning of things to come, just as the events in Guernica foretold future atrocities and dictatorships?” In the end, Waller refuses to give up hope and embeds in each painting Hebrew letters spelling שׁלום—shalom, peace.
Writing on the one-year anniversary of these horrific events, James Boorstein provides a list of simple advice sent in 1991 accompanied by photos taken over the years, and takes stock of the changes in our lives over the course of three decades. James McCarthy dives further into the past and considers what has happened to Maine since white settlers came to obliterate much of Wabanaki culture. McCarthy confesses that two of the photographic views of Maine he shares “are dystopian; they visually point to the many ways the European settlement of Maine tried to culturally erase the indigenous Wabanaki people through warfare and the relentless imposition of colonial power over their land, waters, seasonal subsistence and traditional ways of living.” He does recognize, though, that the other two are not so clear-cut, that instead they might “point to a path forward in these perilous times.”
Finally, among the usual updates from the UMVA Portland chapter, ARRT! The Artists’ Rapid Response Team, and LumenARRT!, you will find photos and a video documenting LumenARRT!’s projections in Monument Square on 6 January 2022. Yes, as one of the projections declared, “democracy demands vigilance,” but also, “love always wins.” So, to go back to this issue’s title, when faced with the choice between Dystopia or Utopia “as things fall apart,” we must indeed remain hopeful but also ever so vigilant.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Spring 2022 cover (Stuart Kestenbaum, Repair the World, 3.5 x 4.5 in., blackout poem with stamped letter text, from Things Seemed to Be Breaking, Deerbrook Editions, 2021).