Joel Babb possesses that preternatural ability to paint complex visual realities both with high fidelity and poetic expression. Hyperrealism is an aesthetic not always valued on the contemporary art scene these days but one he shares with a handful of other fine painters of Maine, among them Richard Estes, Linden Frederick, and Alan Magee.
In October, Babb’s vivid visions of the Boston urban maze and the wild profusion of the Maine coast and woods will be celebrated in a pair of exhibitions – Joel Babb: Enlightened Perspectives at the venerable Vose Galleries in Boston (October 3 to November 21) and Joel Babb: The Process Revealed at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine (October 10 to March 27, 2010).
There are a great many artists who divide their time between New York and Maine, but Babb is one of a select few (John Walker and Jon Imber come first to mind) who are equally identified with Boston and Maine.
“Up here I’m a Boston artist,” Babb told me several years ago when I visited his home and studio in rural Sumner, Maine. “Down there I’m a Maine artist.”
Joel Babb has long been associated with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts where he earned his MFA in 1974 and had taught on and off ever since, but he has lived year-round in Maine since the 1980s. Keeping one foot in the city while living in the country has served him well, as his cityscapes and landscapes complement one another in their attention to detail and in the apparent though hard-won ease with which he is able to bring visual order to both the man-made and natural environments.
“The city’s beauty of architectural forms requires linear perspective – the woods and streams demand a whole different strategy for coping with the complexity of nature’s self-organizing forms,” states Babb in the 24-page catalogue to his Vose exhibition. “Of course it’s all nature, and the subject of painting is about what light is doing in the physical world.”
Babb’s Boston paintings, the masterpiece of which is a six-foot wide panorama of the city as seen from the Hancock Tower, find their poetry not only in the revelation of the play of sunlight across the chaos of buildings but also in the sense of history conveyed by the architecture. And unlike many photorealists, Babb often includes the people who inhabit the city, evoking modern life lived amidst 18th and 19th century buildings.
His Maine paintings, which include deep woodland interiors from wild Gulf Hagas and dramatic coastal landscapes from Mount Desert Island, are visions beyond history, seeking the eternal in the moment, the organizing forces of nature at work in uninhabited landscapes. It is the intricacy of Joel Babb’s art that is initially compelling, but it is his quiet intelligence that informs them over the long term. He is an artist who is able to show you more than the eye can see.
The quintessential Boston & Maine artist with simultaneous exhibitions in Boston & Maine. A treat not to be missed.
[Vose Galleries, 238 Newberry St., Boston MA, 617-536-6176. Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston ME, 207-786-6158.]