Artist John Bisbee and Bowdoin College Museum

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There’s no such thing as bad art.

I used to think that the work of the art critic was to judge art and artists, to sort out the good and dispose of the bad. Years ago, however, I came to realize that on the scale of human actions from genocide to sainthood, making art ranks way up there with the good.

I’ve grown to see my function, therefore, as simply being the best audience an artist or work of art can have — someone who looks hard, thinks seriously about what he has seen, and then responds honestly. Everything I know about art I’ve learned over 40 years of just looking — that and spending a great deal of time in studios, galleries, and museums, talking to artists, curators, collectors, and dealers.

It’s my intention to fill this blog with information, thoughts, and impressions on a broad array of art and art institutions in New England. You’ll have to forgive me the inevitable provincialism of a Maine focus, as that’s where I live and where I look most often. As my life and work takes me farther afield — one daughter in New Hampshire, one in Rhode Island, sister-in-law in Massachusetts, youngest daughter’s soccer tournaments all over New England and the Northeast — I promise to sample the art scenes wherever I go.

To get started, however, let me say a few words about my favorite Maine artist at the moment: sculptor John Bisbee. Bisbee currently has a 20-year retrospective titled Bright Common Spikes: The Sculpture of John Bisbee at the Portland Museum of Art through March 23.

Welding together nails and spikes, and lately just stacking and arranging them, John Bisbee discovers and creates wonderfully organic and tectonic abstract forms. I’ve stated elsewhere and will say again here that John Bisbee is the most important sculptor to emerge from Maine since Louise Nevelson left the family lumberyard in Rockland to become the high-art priestess of New York.

John Bisbee grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduated from Milton Academy and Alfred University, and now teaches part-time at Bowdoin College — yet he’s the least academic artist you’re apt to meet in New England, with the possible exception of a few chainsaw sculptors. His art is direct, strong, and beautiful, exploring the structures inherent in nature as made manifest in nails. The PMA retrospective fills the first-floor galleries, floors and walls, with tons of fantastic forms evoking everything from biological synapses to geological dendrites.

Coincident with Bisbee’s PMA show, he has installed 10,000 pounds of welded and rusted nails in the Coleman Burke Gallery (which he directs) at the Fort Andross Mill complex in Brunswick. The show opened in February as “Patch,” a metallic mat of nails. In March, Bisbee will reform the five tons of nails into “Ridge,” a spinelike, serpentine array. In April, “Ridge” will rise from the mill gallery floor once again as “Mound.”

The February 2 opening of the “Patch-Ridge-Mound” installation also marked the debut performance of John Bisbee’s bluesy folk-rock band, Bright Common, featuring vocals and lead guitar by Bisbee, artist Mark Wethli on bass, artist Cassie Jones on keyboard, and Fort Andross manager Anthony Gatti on drums. Summers, Bisbee serves as the art director of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, and definitely has musical aspirations. “Someday,” he says, “I hope to hear someone say, ‘You know he’s also a sculptor.’ “

Bearded, unkempt, and occasionally uncouth — imagine Robin Williams playing Brancusi — John Bisbee has a welcome leavening effect on the buttoned-down Bowdoin campus.

The big event recently on the Bowdoin campus was the grand reopening of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, following a major renovation of its landmark 1894 Walker Art Building. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, the Bowdoin museum is a veritable treasure chest of art ancient to modern, but it had been in need of major work for more than a decade. The redesign by Boston architect Jorge Silvetti of Machado & Silvetti succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations.

Universal access had long been an issue at the museum, and one of first proposals — to create a ground-level entry by dropping the front door down to the plinth below the historic loggia — met with howls of execration from historic preservationists. Silvetti solved the access problem by creating a separate glass-cube pavilion to the left of the Walker Art Building as the new ground-level main entrance, equipped with both stairs and elevator. The new pavilion defers abstractly to the McKim building just as the Edward Larrabee Barnes Visual Art Center does on the other side.

Silvetti also found a marvelous way of turning the museum around to face the public street, instead of just the Bowdoin Quad. He did this by creating a lighted curtain wall on the street side in which the Bowdoin Museum of Art installed its most valuable works of art — a set of Assyrian bas-reliefs — for all to see 24 hours a day. The huge stone carvings came from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in present-day Iraq, reminding those who consider such things that Iraq was once — and may once again become — a far more civilized place than it is at the moment.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll try to put myself on a ration of 1,000 words if you’ll indulge my wanderings through the art and architecture, design and crafts of New England. They are the cultural bounty that helps make a bleak, beautiful, and cold place hospitable and habitable.


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