Although it is almost impossible to corroborate, medieval poet Dante Alighieri is often attributed to the statement “Nature is the art of God”. Whether this is true or not, much evidence of this appears to be on display in the lower galleries of the Bates College Museum of Art, in the exhibition “Carl Benton Straub: His Enduring Legacy” (until October 16).
Galleries are closed to anyone without official Bates College identification until further notice, due to the transmissibility of the delta variant of COVID-19, but you can view the virtual exhibit at my.matterport.com.
Straub came to Bates in 1965 as a professor of religion and philosophy. His own academic work focused on the religious interpretation of the American landscape and environmental ethics, which ultimately led him to establish the environmental studies program at the college. He also created the Olivia and Ellwood Straub Foundation (named after his parents) to finance the acquisition of landscape works.
Clearly for Straub, nature and divinity were inseparable. The best works on this show go to the root of that connection in myriad ways. The bulk of the works are from Straub’s own collection, which he bequeathed to the college upon his death in 2019. Others were purchased for the school through the endowment.
The exhibition opens with a very personal painting which is a highlight of the exhibition, “Carl’s Path” by Joel Babb. It’s personal as it depicts a forest on Straub’s property in Sumner, where rays of sunlight shoot down the dense undergrowth through an opening in the trees. There can be no doubt of the presence of God in this warm golden glow. In this way, Babb’s oil on canvas recalls the function of light in the works of Hudson River painters like Edwin Church or John Frederick Kensett. It is an exquisite image – and deliciously transporting.
A quartet of color photos by Mark Silber titled “Carl Straub’s Land: A Study in Ferns, 2007-2008” is equally personal in its documentation of Straub’s Sumner property. They are calm images yet full of life and growth. Melville McClean also photographs “Carl’s Pond” in the fall, its surface covered with leaves.
Nature, of course, is a broad rubric that applies to both flora and fauna. There are a few beautiful pieces that show the latter, including the woodcut of Neil Welliver’s trout, John Laurent’s painting of Salmon trying to climb a waterfall, and Donald Lent’s etching from “Frogs for Carl”. But it is much more of an exhibition on the spirit of the earth as the sense of reverence is more palpable in landscapes and seascapes.
A truly impressive large-scale work is the untitled multimedia work of Michele Lauriat from her “Pemigewasset Series 6, 2018”. If you step back and squint your eyes, you can make out an image of what looks like a crevice in the woods. But the superposition of marks and other images is so dense that the basic subject is subsumed in a host of other phenomena.
The supports are not listed, but I was able to decipher what looked like watercolor washes and deliberate drips, graphite drawing, and precisely rendered elements such as bark and grasses, all applied over white. paper. The surface ripples with life in a way that seems literally wild (read: indomitable), as if Lauriat is revealing every particle of energy, magnetic resonance, and spiritual force emanating from the soil, leaves, insects, healthy wood and rotten, rocks – absolutely everything. As our eyes move across the paper, we are drawn and spat again as some elements recede and others rise to the surface. The complexity of the composition and our inability to separate one thing from another effectively conveys the nature of all things as one, engaged in a perpetual rhythm of life, evolution and death.
This is an example of how Straub’s endowment helps Bates acquire top-notch revolutionary art. Another is Andrea Sulzer’s “Red Dew”, an equally complex work, albeit on a smaller scale, executed in colored pencil and graphite. It’s also more abstract, literally reminiscent of a bed of long grasses in a forest or a swamp that are bent, weighed down and wet with dew. The magical scene is reminiscent – albeit in a much more layered and colorful way – of Chinese landscape paintings.
Some works are more clearly figurative, but no less powerful. The rhythms of the cosmos and the presence of the divine are just as apparent in the gouache and the collage “Echo” by Dozier Bell (we almost hear the sound of the universe in this small work); the lithographic triptych by Claire Van Vleit on hand-made paper “Wheeler Mountain Bowl” (in which one barely begins to grasp the immensity of pure being); Joseph Haroutunian’s quickly and forcefully sketched watercolor “Orange Granite, near Round Pond Mountain (Unionville, Maine)” (there is nothing inanimate in these rocks) and “Gray Sea, No. 2, 1966 Arthur Thompson, also quickly sketched.
Other artists use vivid colors to exalt themselves in the breathtaking visual feast of greater power: Glenn Redell’s “Flower Field” saturated with anotherworldly light, the livid cover of flowers in “Poppy Field, Bargino, Italy, 1988” by Joseph Nicoletti, or “Red Velvet” by James Linehan.
Still other artists focus on the mystical and deep silence of nature. This is the case with the black and white photography of Gifford Ewing and Bradford Washburn, for example, or the fuzzy and fuzzy landscapes of Kathleen Galligan (aptly called “Quiet Time”) and woodcuts of snow-covered trees. by Bobette McCarthy. Paul Héroux’s beautifully modeled ceramics, on the other hand, can capture the tranquil beauty of a flower or incorporate chemistry diagrams that appear to attempt to quantify divine alchemy.
Straub wrote in 2005: “Here are moments of pause before us, perhaps forcing us to remember the primordial but delicate structure of grace that is life on earth. There are many, many of these moments in this show.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]