Writing Archive

Rockland Chronicle

The New Criterion, October 2018 (read there)

One goes to the Farnsworth Art Museum, in Rockland, Maine, expecting to see examples of the Wyeth clan. But the featured shows can range widely. Last year they put on a Marguerite Zorach show that I’m still kicking myself for missing. Their 2010 exhibition of Alex Katz remains, for me, definitive. Katz can be off-putting, but when one of his works puts me off I have memories of enormous scenes of forests silhouetted by dusk and his Monet-homaging water lily paintings to soften the blow.

As strong as are this year’s shows, the big news is the Farnsworth director Christopher Brownawell’s recent rehanging of the permanent collection, which has benefited from the largesse of Rocklanders for seven decades. There is a scintillating Prendergast watercolor, a muscular Bellows oil, and a Fairfield Porter seascape of the sort of verve that prompts one to wonder why he couldn’t share a bit of that colossal talent with the rest of us daubers.

There are also surprises. It turns out that Kenneth Noland had connections to Maine, and he is represented by a glowing target painting, Mysteries: Primal Blue, from 2002. There is also a delightful folding screen painted by the muralist Barry Faulkner. His Manship Toasting the Angels (1923) depicts an automotive outing into the woods. The adventurers have stepped out of the car to hoist glasses up to the titular angels, who descend towards them, kindly bearing bottles of wine. (One need not wonder where the artist stood on Prohibition.) A distinctly Buddha-faced sun shines gold over the scene as a nude couple dances by a tree. The drawing hails from Art Deco and Orthodox icon painting, the coloration is vaguely Nabis, the mountains in the background and the format itself are more or less Rinpa School, and the visage of the sun seems plucked from a Tibetan thangka.

Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) has been installed nearby, constituting a room of heads of the twelve Chinese astrological signs. I posed next to a grinning monkey, representing mine, for a selfie, but then thought better of it. Ai’s example of courage in the face of hostility from his native government—which unceremoniously demolished his studio over the summer—has always moved me more than any of his art. The gilt heads reference the sacking of the Garden of Perfect Brightness during the Opium Wars. It slaps the face of colonialism, but the animals mug so zanily that the joke seems to be on the Chinese tradition. The art is conflicted, and not in a way that helps it.

The Farnsworth is more awash in Wyeth than usual this year. The very name will pull people into the building during the short travel season up in Maine, but the museum and the Wyeths have had a long, substantive commitment to each other. This is reflected in a room given over to Andrew Wyeth’s paintings from Rockland.1 The Farnsworth admits that the town is not a major theme in his larger oeuvre. But focusing upon it slices a cross-section through a production that took place over the course of fifty years. Rockland thematically joins works from the 1940s, when Wyeth was still trying to out-watercolor Sargent, to mature works in the seasoned realist style that we associate with him. Some of the paintings have never been exhibited.

I often, though hardly always, prefer the looser work. Rockland Harbor (1954) is a sharp example, with murky, gestural washes, calligraphic plants punctuating the foreground, and blobby, opaque shadows that one recalls fondly from cityscapes by Giorgio Morandi. It reveals the animating force of Wyeth’s work across styles, an urgency to capture a particular warmth of place. The weather is often icy in his art, but his attitude never is.

This is in contrast to Jamie Wyeth, for whom the converse is sometimes the case. His 1989 Portrait of Orca Bates on display in “The Wyeths: Family and Friends” illustrates the point.2 Venetian red intensified with something even more sanguine suffuses the midtones, heating the picture up. Rivers run as molten gold in a faraway landscape behind the subject, who remains at a psychological remove greater than is accounted for by his adolescence. I’m coming to think of Jamie as the postmodern Wyeth, through which contemporaneity intrudes upon the world depicted in the work of his father, rudely and seemingly not with the younger artist’s wholesale consent. The jarring acidity of the blue of Orca’s t-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe is a signal to recognize the self-consciousness of this scene of a boy holding a seagull at the edge of a cliff, and to accept the artist’s undeniable talent for oil paint for what it is: a technique operating within the limits of its time and circumstances, just as that of his father and grandfather.

“Andrew Wyeth: Temperas and Studies from the Wyeth Collection” presents the rigorous Andrew in contrast to the Andrew inclined to splash paint.3 (I’m using given names only to disambiguate Wyeths, not to imply that we’re on anything like a first-name basis.) This exhibition pairs studies with final works. The only way that you’re ever going to paint a fishing net to look like a real fishing net is to render it strand by strand in egg tempera. The only way you’re ever going to get that to turn out right is to figure it out on a separate sheet of paper using a sharp pencil. Mistaking harder work for better work is a plague that grips much contemporary realism, but this is the counterexample of labor invested with genuine feeling throughout. Investigation and not merely practice is in evidence. On display as well is Goodbye, My Love from 2009, the final tempera from the artist’s long career. The painting has hardly been displayed, and images of it are not permitted, so this is a rare opportunity to view it, with its sailboat exiting stage left, witnessed only by a silent house.

A similar dedication to local talent is expressed differently down the street at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Its director, Suzette McAvoy, was instrumental in the institution’s move from handsome but confined quarters in Rockport to a sleek facility here. Her comprehension of art both regional and international combines with a pointed savvy that enables her to present the work of Mainers in a way that feels like it could stand up to contemporary art from anywhere. In that, she has no equal in the six-state New England area.

Alas, her milieu is her milieu. Anti-Trump sentiment is a driving force behind “John Bisbee: American Steel” and it makes itself felt in “Tom Burckhardt: Studio Flood.”4 Previously regarded as trenchantly blue, Maine sent one electoral vote to Trump in 2016, splitting it away from the three that went to Hillary Clinton. It was a psephological incident that was known to be possible but hadn’t happened since 1828. As hard as the coastal bubbles took the news of Trump’s victory, Mainer Clintonites must have felt especially stung by their neighbors north of the surprisingly tidy divide between their Atlantic-facing counties and the rest of the state.

I admit to cynicism about all the artists unmoved to protest until their preferred party was out of power. Obama’s warmongering, haranguing of whistleblowers, and expansion of the surveillance state ought to have merited some. Bisbee was primarily an abstractionist until current events pushed him towards the political. That said, his umbrage feels honest and sufficiently transformed into art. His medium is nails of various kinds, ranging from the household sort to railroad spikes, forged and cast into intricate forms. Ozymandias, dated 2009-18, strikes at my libertarian heart. Long spikes tangle into the form of a gargantuan snake, which overtakes and topples the eight-foot columns nearby. As its head climbs the wall, it radiates splinters of iron. Nails twisted into giant letters read DON’T BET ON ME across the scene. The Gadsden Flag means something much different to him than me, clearly, but I take the point that not everything done in the name of freedom is something that we’ll boast of forevermore.

The premise of Burckhardt’s installation is a flood that fills an artist’s studio, built life-size out of cardboard and oriented upside down. The viewer is invited to walk through, on the ceiling where the floor ought to be, as the waters above bear down on the racks of canvases, the hung pictures, the shelves of art supplies, the pegboard of painter’s tools, and the books. All-black paintings bob in the waters overhead, which have begun to consume a poster bearing the image of the president with a rude epithet in Spanish. Hokusai’s Wave (ca. 1829) adorns a wall. The setting is assuredly New York City, where the artist resides when he’s not in the Maine town of Searsmont. Worries about the current administration and climate change aside, this is a portrayal of the upset of the tradition of painting in contemporary times. Julie Heffernan has a show up at P.P.O.W. at the moment in Chelsea that depicts, in two rooms’ worth of variations, paintings of a nude self-portrait holding painted scrolls in painted rooms hung with paintings. The images and references multiply until they overwhelm the viewer. Burckhardt’s vision depicts the same anxiety about the function of art circa 2018, negatively, with canvases blackened and abandoned to the floodwaters for want of any way to save them.

One emerges from the deluge into “Jocelyn Lee: The Appearance of Things.”5 the photographer’s subject is Arcadia, and her work is full of nudes and fruit in the landscape. But the models are seen to grow plump and aged, the fruit ripens and rots and falls in the water, and the season cycles inexorably into winter. Some of these are staged ineffectively but many of them are quite moving, particularly The Perfect Breast (2017), in which a nude with her head cropped away stands on a bed of moss in the woods. Half of her body, the side with the mastectomy, is in shadow, while the other catches the forest light as if its volume itself were a kind of defiance.

Back at the Farnsworth, a call went out over the summer for Maine artists to submit concept sketches for an exhibition of folding screens based on that wild Barry Faulkner. It will be a good reason to return in the spring.

1. “Andrew Wyeth in Rockland” opened at the Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, Maine, on April 7, 2018, and remains on view through February 17, 2019.

2. “The Wyeths: Family and Friends” opened at the Farnsworth Museum on June 16 and remains on view through December 30, 2018.

3. “Andrew Wyeth: Temperas and Studies from the Wyeth Collection” opened at the Farnsworth Museum on March 17, 2018, and remains on view through February 3, 2019.

4. “Tom Burckhardt: Studio Flood” opened at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine, on June 9 and remains on view through October 7, 2018. “John Bisbee: American Steel” opened at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art on June 30 and remains on view through October 14, 2018.

5. “Jocelyn Lee: The Appearance of Things” opened at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art on June 16 and remains on view through October 14, 2018.

Word count: 1876

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