When John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury moves from the Portland Museum of Art to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for its January 28 to March 18 run, the landmark Marin show will be complemented by Land, Sea, and Sky: Contemporary Art in Maine, an exhibition of recent landscape paintings by nine artists curated by Addison director Brian Allen.
“As the two exhibitions attest,” notes the Addison website, “Maine’s rugged coast and rocky topography has long been a fertile source of artistic inspiration.”
Traffic on the Maine Turnpike would grind to a halt if all the landscape painters in Maine tried to leave at once, but Brian Allen has not, for the most part, chosen conventional landscape artists as Marin companions. Of course, Marin was not a traditional landscape painter by any means, abstracting the downeast coast with his modernist vision of broken color and dynamic brushstrokes.
The artist whose work most closely approximates Marin’s is probably Terry Hilt, an artist who paints the Maine coast in a brushy mix of watercolor, acrylic and wax resist.
“Maine coastal modernists, especially Marin, Betts, and Thon, went beyond Cezanne’s accomplishment of fractured space adding exciting motion to their work,” writes Hilt in her statement on the website of Aucocisco Galleries, the Portland gallery that represents most of the artist in the Addison show. “In my expressionist landscapes, I am influenced by this concept of abstracted movement. Monhegan artists, James Fitzgerald, and Leo Brooks have influenced my use of thick watercolor as medium.”
The most conventional landscape painter in the show is the late Susan Shatter, represented here by naturalistic shoreline watercolors. University of Maine professor Michael Lewis conjures romantic, mystical landscapes that may be Maine but might also be imaginary. I must confess I did not get a preview of the contributions that the late Robert Solotaire, one of Maine’s consummate urban realists, makes to Land, Sea, and Sky
Dozier Bell shows a pair of her cosmic skyscapes. Katherine Bradford, who is not really a landscape painter at all, paints seriocomic narratives such as five people gathering around a banquet table for a luncheon on a sea ledge.
Alan Bray is also a narrative painter, though he does stick closer to the central Maine landscape, capturing the mute drama of trampled paths through a hayfield and the abrupt insertion of a stand of yellow tamaracks in a lilac forest. For my money, Bray and Dennis Pinette, both Maine natives, are the best contemporary Maine landscape painters. Pinette paints man-altered landscapes such as highway sand piles and flaming fields.
While I am very familiar with most of the artists in the show, I was most delightfully surprised by the work of Vivien Russe, a painter who has made a dramatic breakthrough in her art in recent years. Russe, who is both a fine artist and a professional nurse, has taken to juxtaposing landscape imagery and objects in most startling and instructive ways, in many case pairing natural images with paintings of pillows.
In Scarborough Beach, the gentle surf of Maine’s most beautiful sand beach rolls in above a crisp white pillow that is itself a kind of human landscape.
“I’ve chosen a particular care-giving task, performed in my other vocation of nursing, making innumerable pillowcase changes as a symbol for ‘health,’” Russe explains. “This direct visual metaphor captures the tension between stasis and movement; symbolically the pillow suggests dreaming while the dreamer is transported in ways impossible to do when awake.”
Go for the Marin modernism, but don’t miss the Maine moderns.
[Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover MA, 978-749-4015]