The Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Maine began life in 1952 as an artists’ cooperative called Maine Coast Artists. It was still Maine Coast Artists in 1992 (and always will be to me) when it celebrated its 40th anniversary with a landmark exhibition entitled On the Edge: Forty Years of Maine Painting 1952-1992. The exhibition showcased more than 100 artists.
MCA became CMCA in 2002, by which time the Rockport gallery was well established as the primary venue for new art in Maine. But the ambitious expansion from a summer gallery of coastal artists to a year-round gallery of Maine’s best new art took its toll as the economy crashed in 2008 and CMCA almost went under in 2009.
CMCA director Suzette McAvoy, who engineered the turnaround that saved the only non-profit gallery devoted exclusively to contemporary art in Maine, originally thought about celebrating the 60th anniversary with a pair of large summer exhibitions, perhaps 60 artists in each show, but ultimately she came up with a more radical concept, a 60th Anniversary Honors Exhibition (through July 8, 2012) featuring just five artists “whose work, throughout their careers, reflects CMCA’s mission of ‘advancing contemporary art in Maine.’”
“The five honorees demonstrate through their art a willingness to continually challenge assumptions, to experiment, and to push past established boundaries—exemplifying a spirit of innovation and excellence that contributes to the expansion of contemporary art in Maine.”
Three of the five 60th honorees were included in the 40th anniversary show – Katharine Bradford, Frederick Lynch, and Mark Wethli. The other two were either not in Maine in 1992 or not yet on Maine’s art world radar. Sculptor John Bisbee arrived in 1995. Photographer Todd Watts first came to Maine in 1974 to print for the late, great Berenice Abbott, but only became a year-round resident in 1999. Bisbee, Bradford and Wethli are all resident of Brunswick, where Bisbee and Wethli teach at Bowdoin College. Fred Lynch, who taught for many years at the University of Southern Maine, lives in Saco. Watts lives and works in rural Blanchard.
It is a daring curatorial approach to select just five artists from among the hundreds of worthy artists in a state with literally thousands, but Suzette McAvoy has one of the best eyes in Maine and her judgment is widely respected. Bisbee, Bradford, Lynch and Wethli are inarguably among the best artists working in the state today. Todd Watts is as well, but he is the wildcard in the 60th honors show, only becoming known in Maine in recent years though he has been in the state on and off for almost 40 years.
The quality that McAvoy was looking for in her five honorees was a willingness to experiment and push boundaries. In that regard Watts is perhaps the most cutting edge of the quintet, a photographer whose images often look more like surreal paintings than pictures of the external world. Eschewing natural color, Watts creates highly manipulated images that he prints in an otherworldly palette of hot pinks, fiery oranges, and garish greens.
Watts’ First Uncertainty, for instance, is a visionary image of Adam and Eve encountering one another as they explore a vast new plane of existence, a swirling Creation in which air and land, up and down, are as yet undefined. The only correlation between this bizarre, burning Garden of Eden and the hundreds of documentary black and whites Watts once printed for Berenice Abbott is that they are superbly printed.
John Bisbee, a sculptor known for his elegant creations in welded nails, shows not only organic abstractions built up of discrete welded units ranging from brads to spikes but also “drawings” created by “branding” heated nails on wood.
Mark Wethli, who was represented in the 1992 MCA show by a sublimely realistic painting of a woman at a table lost in thought, 20 years later has transformed himself into one of the state’s foremost abstract painters, represented here by a series of acrylic on panel that read like private semaphores. What remains of Wethli’s realist past is the silence and the stillness.
Kathy Bradford, who was represented in the 1992 show by a painterly abstraction, 20 years later has transformed herself into a painterly imagist, a painter who tells imaginary stories on canvases covered with very elementary little figures such as bathers at a beach and boats at sea. What remains of Bradford’s abstract past is the playfulness and the humor.
Frederick Lynch is perhaps Maine’s most rigorously pure abstract painter, an artist animated by the spirit of visual inquiry. Twenty years ago, one of his horizontal stripe paintings graced the cover of the On the Edge catalogue. I own one of Lynch’s stripe paintings from the 1990s and I still consider it one of the best and most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. But Lynch has long since moved on, delving deeper into his theoretical inquiry into the nature of a painting. For the 60th honors show he is showing a series of his Division paintings in which the exploration of branching angles leads to abstract patterns much the same way combininations of John Bisbee’s welded nails lead to abstract structures.
I suppose it is possible that Suzette McAvoy could have come up with five different artists who embody the CMCA ideal of advancing contemporary art in Maine, but I wouldn’t argue with any of her choices and I applaud the provocative nature of her exclusivity. She isn’t necessarily claiming these are the best artists in Maine, but she’s coming close.
[Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Ave, Rockport ME, 207-236-2875.]