The current exhibition at Alice Gauvin Gallery, Portland’s newest commercial art gallery, is titled “Human/Nature” (until March 26). As with its last release, Gauvin brings together the work of multiple artists under one grand theme: nature’s ability “to threaten, comfort, nurture and impress – and through it all, somehow possess a spirit.” which is proper to him”.
The work is very diverse and, like his last show too, a bit mixed. The artists all feel quite distinctive and don’t really converse harmoniously with each other, so it’s best to go in knowing that you’ll see four distinctly different aesthetics, though they all have a lot to do with nature and the different feelings that she can fast.
The show begins with etchings by Simon Carr, inspired by the cave drawings of Lascaux. They are laboriously made. They start with a drawing which is then transferred to a zinc plate using carbon paper. Next, Carr deploys a diamond-tipped scriber to scratch the design into the metal and immerses the plate in a dilute nitric acid bath, which etches the lines deeper into the metal. The plate is inked and wiped off, leaving the ink only in the grooves, then the paper is laid over the plate with a blotter and passed through a machine which compresses the plate, pressing the ink out of the grooves and onto the paper. At each step of this process, the design is reworked or altered in some way.
There are five etchings, four of which are quite literal. You’ll probably recognize the pictures from your archeology or art history textbooks (or the caves themselves if you’ve visited them). In these cases, the technique is what’s most interesting, because otherwise they’re essentially representations of something someone else has already created. The black and white palette also takes them a degree away from their origin.
But in the fifth engraving, the equine form is partially obscured by rough lines. It’s the most interesting to me because it’s not just an image of an existing thing anymore. It becomes Carr’s own vision through his expressionist marks. It also brings the beast closer to expressing its own spirit, the marks acting as a sort of magnetic or energetic resonance in the manner of Giacometti’s paintings with their obsessive radiation of lines.
On the opposite wall are tiny landscapes also by Carr. I don’t know how much of a sense of nature spirit they emanate from, but what’s most obvious to those familiar with this artist’s diverse work is that this scale works to his advantage. In Carr’s large still lifes and New York scenes, the visual impact of her application of stippling paint can be dispelled by a sense of controlled sameness. These beautiful landscapes seem more spontaneous and have the quality of oil sketches made outdoors. The stippling is blended into a visible brushstroke, adding movement and energy to the surface.
Alongside Carr’s etchings are several truly electrifying paintings by Cathy Diamond. There is so much going on in these works that they require you to linger over them for quite some time. They are truly a hybrid of drawing and painting, and their surfaces buzz, sizzle and quiver with feverish energy. They are clearly landscapes, but abstract in a way that captures nature’s ability to constantly transform and evolve. In this way, they viscerally convey a sort of aggressive fecundity of nature. And morphing happens across species. If nothing is definitively articulated, certain forms intimate animal life, sometimes stemming from plant life (or vice versa).
A painting like “Towards the Light” looks like an LSD-fueled version of one of Cézanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire paintings. It’s a maelstrom of greens, a color associated with fertility. We perceive what looks like an open space in the middle of the work as if looking at the hills and the sky through an opening in a thicket of vegetation. But we have the distinct impression that this opening will not last long before being obstructed, then completely obscured, by the inexorable advance of vines and leaves. A strange blue figure in the lower left looks like a quadrupedal creature, although we don’t know what.
The colors of the diamond are also lush and lovely. “In the Thick” is obviously a forest scene. Again we see a clearing or a pond or a stream through an opening in a dense break among branches and leaves. But the scene is imbued with a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of browns, pinks, grays and golds.
Sequences of aligned black dots appear here and in other paintings. They could certainly be branches or stems of plants, but they look more like personal iconography, similar to the enigmatic symbols repeated by Arshile Gorky. They are also found in “Cacophony”, a virtuoso work despite its small size. This secret language adds to the sense of the mysterious inner life of all flora (and some fauna). Diamond’s works are breathtakingly beautiful…and just a little creepy in their suggestion of the uncontrollable, indomitable power of nature.
Gina Sawin, Gauvin’s mother, contributes paintings of various species of shorebirds in flight. Like Carr, she smudges and stipples with her brush rather than creating gestural strokes. These paintings may seem simple at first, but the more we look at them, the more we detect his skill in depicting wonderfully subtle variations of light. They appear to be flying through a cloudy sky, the sun filtering through them like a hazy, almost imperceptible glow.
If we look a little longer, we also see a recurring geometry that structures the paintings. It is defined by the negative space between the wings, as well as the wings themselves. The repetitiveness of this natural geometry telegraphs the meaning of the birds’ directional movement through space with the ineffable precision of their whisper. Synchronous changes in their common flight path send these geometries in other directions. But the act of their whispering also conveys their own inner instinctual communication with each other, which completely confuses human understanding.
Finally, there are the paintings of Elizabeth Higgins, which seem less aligned with the Gauvin theme. Although they certainly represent nature, they actually seem to be more about the interiority of the artist than the landscape and nature itself, even when there is no figure in them.
The paintings of Fogo Island, between Newfoundland and Labrador, have the same atmosphere of geographic isolation as the endless renditions Mainers saw of Monhegan Island. Like some of them, there’s a kind of stark beauty in the topography that can scratch your clean, raw heart (particularly a woodcut of a painting Higgins titled “Pilgrimage to St. Anne, Isle of Fogo”).
But what is evoked here, perhaps because of the simplicity of the line and the composition of these works, is the melancholy of the artist who paints them. What is interesting. One piece, “Bantry Bay,” which revolves around a splash of white paint that depicts light breaking on water through a cloud, comes closest to conveying the awe-inspiring endless supply of phenomena of nature. Yet even here it is the fear of the artist that we feel the most.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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