For 18 years, Bevin Engman, an artist on the faculty of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, primarily painted still-lifes. For most of that time, she painted books. Books – open, closed, stacked, shelved, scattered, arranged in an architecture all their own – provided the armature over which she applied paint. There was a formal, academic beauty to the bookscapes, but they always seemed to me somehow detached. No so Engman’s lovely new landscapes.
Bevin Engman: New Work at the Colby College Museum of Art (January 20 to March 8) features mainly paintings, collages, and source photographs from the artist’s visual exploration of the Cape Cod landscape where she grew up summers. Engman reconnected with the dunes and beaches of the Cape in 2006 when she spent a week painting there. She returned for three weeks in July, 2008, to pursue her vision.
“It was in Truro that I was first introduced to the integral relationship between light and color and their capacity to evoke a sense of place and longing,” Engman writes. “This work represents my connection to a fragile slip of land, buffeted by weather, water, and memory.”
Bevin Engman grew up in Pennsylvania where her father, sculptor Robert Engman, taught for almost 30 years at the University of Pennsylvania. Both she and her sister, the sculptor Kerstin Engman, studied at Penn. Though the Engmans seemed to stake out different aesthetic terrain – abstract geometric sculpture (Robert), figurative sculpture (Kerstin), still-life painting (Bevin) – there is a subtle sense of reserve and refinement in all their art, perhaps owing to their Swedish heritage.
Engman’s studies of book forms, of which there a few examples in the New Works show, are thoughtful and carefully arranged and observed, but I never found them particularly compelling. They seemed to have little emotional content, being more visual investigations than personal expressions.
“Working from observation,” she writes of the book still-lifes, “I encountered aspects of perception so subtle and elusive that I continued to explore this motif, drawn to its stable combinations of form and situation.”
The new Cape Cod paintings, on the other hand, while solidly within the landscape tradition, strike me as embodying much more than an intellectual analysis of color, light, and form. What is “subtle and elusive” in these oil on board paintings are not “aspects of perception” but frissons of memory and experience. Though, in their cautious modulation of sandy tans, grassy greens, and sky blues, the Cape Cod landscapes are obviously descriptive of place, they are also informed by a naturalistic sense of life lived. And a life lived in the dunes seems infinitely preferable to a life lived in books.
Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, ME. 207-859-5600.