Maine in the Abstract

Last week I was contacted by the Abbeville Press’s Abbeville Manual of Style to do an on-line interview about contemporary art in Maine and New England. In answer to the question “Do you have a favorite artist or favorite work of art?”, […]

By Edgar Allen Beem

Jul 23 2008

Water Is Wide

The Water is Wide by William Manning

Last week I was contacted by the Abbeville Press’s Abbeville Manual of Style to do an on-line interview about contemporary art in Maine and New England. In answer to the question “Do you have a favorite artist or favorite work of art?”, I wrote that “As a Maine native and chauvinist, I am most drawn to native Maine artists because, rather than imitate or describe the natural beauty of the state, they tend to internalize the realities of life in Maine and express them in abstract and conceptual ways.”

One of the artists I had in mind was David Row, a Portland native now working in New York. Row, who returns summers to Cushing Island in Portland Harbor, was a student of the geometric abstract painter Al Held at Yale and his own complex and elegant abstract paintings and prints speak a similar universal language of form with Row’s own accent.

Currently (through August 9), David Row has a beautiful exhibition at ICON Contemporary Art in downtown Brunswick, Maine. Entitled On Maine, Row’s show features a family of nine oils on canvas, paper, and steel that extend his interest in wholeness and partiality. When I first saw Row’s work 20 years ago, he was painting multi-panel paintings in which segments of large geometric forms carried over from one panel to another.

“For some time,” Row has said, “my work has involved the tension between fragments and wholes. It seems to reflect the disparity between what we desire (wholeness) and what we experience (fragment).”

His new paintings contain this tension within single panels, cropping off sections of looping, serpentine forms that might be intestines, strands of DNA, ganglia, or the tracks of bloodworms in the mud. There is something powerfully visceral about Row’s roping lines, a sense of embodiment that is heightened by his distinctive palette of bilious greens, organ pinks, dried blood reds, and fecal browns. They speak to the gut through the eye. Not to carry this anatomical metaphor too far, however, a painting like Full Moon uses the same vocabulary of continuous, looping strokes in shades of dripping, watery blues to speak perhaps of the night sky and the sea within and without. Maine internalized.

Upstairs at Icon, Don Voisine, a native of Fort Kent now working in Brooklyn, is showing a selection of boldly graphic oil on wood paintings that might be called Sections of the Cross as the recurring motif is a truncated and blotted cruciform. Voisine’s obscured crosses may simply be formal studies, but knowing that he comes from the Franco-American community of the St. John Valley makes one suspect that there is residual religious element to them as well.

Don Voisine studied at the old Portland School of Art and at the Concept School of Visual Studies, a short-lived break-away art program from the Portland School of Art started by William Manning, who back in the 1960s sometimes seemed to be the only abstract artist in Maine. As it happen, Bill Manning currently (through September 7) has an exhibition of his early work at the Art Gallery at University of New England in Portland. Entitled From Here to Eternitime, Manning’s show demonstrates once again how masterfully he has managed for decades now to capture, in his own abstract shorthand, a sense of the passage of time and light on the island of Monhegan. Manning’s three-dimensional paintings from the 1980s and 1990s will be exhibited at Jameson Modern Gallery in Portland during the month of August.

Abstract art might be thought of as visual music. As with a song or symphony, one does not ask “What is it?” or “What does it mean?”, but rather experiences the rhythms and melodies, dissonances and rests. For those who like their abstractions upbeat and lyrical, I highly recommend a stop at 317 Main St. Community Art Center in my own hometown of Yarmouth. Now (through September 5], Garry Mitchell, who teaches art at Colby College, is showing a generous selection of lively, colorful, and very accessible paintings which sometimes dance at the edge of representation. In a painting such as Trellis, for instance, Mitchell uses lattice forms as edges to contain a leafy vine. In Flock, abstract birds flutter and tumble in a chromatic world all their own. This, too, is Maine in the abstract.

ICON Contemporary Art, 19 Mason St., Brunswick, ME, 207-725-8157 (no website); Art Gallery at University of New England, 716 Stevens Ave, Portland, ME, 207-221-4499; 317 Main St, 317 Main St., Yarmouth, ME, 207-846-9559. Jameson Modern Gallery, 305 Commercial St, Portalnd, ME, 207-772-5522.