As we were driving up the coast and then inland to Bangor last week to see some art shows, Portland gallerist Andy Verzosa, who is co-editing a new book on contemporary art in Maine with me, asked me who I would select if I had to name one living artist to represent contemporary Maine art. Even restricting myself to native Maine artists, as I felt I should, I had several really good ones to choose from – Dozier Bell, Alan Bray, Ethan Hayes-Chute, Charlie Hewitt, Bill Manning, Greg Parker, Dennis Pinette, Celeste Roberge, Jesse Salisbury, Barbara Sullivan, Michael Waterman, Richard Wilson.
I chose Alan Bray. Of course, we were on our way to see the Alan Bray show at the University of Maine Museum of Art, so my choice was no surprise. Still, if you were looking for a living artist whose work distills the essence of Maine the way Homer, Wyeth and Welliver once did, Alan Bray would have to be on your short list.
At The Edges: Paintings by Alan Bray at the University of Maine Museum of Art in downtown Bangor (through January 5, 2013) is one of the best Alan Bray shows I have ever seen and one of the best painting shows I have seen in Maine in recent years. Bray is a very deliberate and not very prolific painter. I usually see his work a few paintings at a time at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, so a chance to see 21 major paintings produced in the 21st century is special and rare.
Born in Waterville, raised in Monson, and a long-time resident of Sangerville, Bray is a true son of Maine and it is to the landscape of central Maine, a place at once wild and domesticated, natural and feral, that he turns for his distinctive take on theMaine reality. Bray was educated at the University of Southern Maine and the Villa Schifanoia in Florence,Italy, and his style of magical realism is a combination of fine and folk art, like a synthesis of New England regionalism and Italian Renaissance.
“Bray’s paintings of familiar places,” states the museum press release, “convey the ebb and flow of natural phenomena; and depict moments of the profound beauty that often lie at the edges of our perception.”
All of the paintings in the UMMA show are done in casein, the milk-based paint Bray has used since he was in Italy in the 1970s. Applied in a painstaking, mannerly way, Bray’s brushwork combines with his slightly odd choice of subjects to create an edgy vision of a Maine landscape at once recognizable and mythic, a storybook landscape in which the drama is somehow off-stage or in the past.
One of my favorite paintings in the exhibition, for example, is Lost Ground (2010), a painting of bare trees standing in a snowy landscape at the edge of a yellowed field. The uniform trees are strange enough, but then it becomes apparent that the trees in a neat, subtle square at the edge of the woods are either of a different variety or size. What is this lost ground? A former burial ground? An old farmstead? Or just a field gone fallow and returning to woodland?
Deer Stand (2003) is another wintry scene in which the wooden platform a hunter has erected in a tree next to a game trail stands covered in new fallen snow while beneath the tree is evidence of deer browsing. The hunter and the hunted are absent, leaving just the temporary traces of their life-and-death game in the snow.
First Snow (2012), the image on the exhibition invitation, is a chilly scene of winter, the foreground occupied by cold blue ripples on a pond, the background by a drowned forest rimed in snow. The ghost of a hill can be seen through the trees and wood duck boxes affixed to two of the trees attest to the proximity of man.
I spent a lot of time looking at Footbridge (2012), a vertical casein on panel of a view from a wooden footbridge up a murky stream into a snowy forest. It is snowing in the woods, the falling snow rendered by Bray in long, slanting lines of white. This atmospheric painting reminded me of Neil Welliver’s snowing paintings in which he would apply a screen of tens of thousands of tiny white dots to capture the effect of looking at the landscape through falling snow.
Alan Bray and Neil Welliver are very different painters, despite a certain first glance resemblance in their work. Welliver was a landscape painter who had grown up in an age of abstraction. Illusion was anathema to him. Welliver’s big Maine landscapes are diagrammatic in that he always insisted that his work be a flat painting before it was a three dimensional illusion of nature. He was painting an equivalent of nature.
Alan Bray is an environmental storyteller. His small Maine landscapes are as much allusion as illusion, referring to natural and human history in oblique ways. Cheese Factory Spring (2007) is the apotheosis of Bray’s gnostic talent for evoking the hidden narrative of landscapes. A small springfed pond surrounded by mossy stones stands in the midst of snowy woods, laden evergreen branches reflected in the surface. Where once there was human industry – the dug pond, the wall of stones – there is now an indifferent nature standing in mute testimony to the passing of man.
The edges implied by At the Edges: Paintings by Alan Bray are the margins where the man-altered landscape meets the wild. Alan Bray is the visual poet laureate of nature reclaiming central Maine even as man attempts to suburbanize it. His vision of Maine is the best and the purest I have seen.
[UniversityofMaineMuseumofArt,40 Harlow St.,BangorME, 207-561-3350.]