For the second time this season, we have the opportunity to see the impact that an influential and beloved art teacher has had on his students and his circle of contemporaries.
Earlier in the summer there was “Acquired Symbols” at the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, which featured the work of John Lorence, a teacher at what is now Maine College of Art & Design, as well as that of his students. and colleagues. Now comes “Parts of an Immense Whole: 9 Painters in Conversation with the Work of Joseph A. Fiore” at Able Baker Contemporary in Portland (until September 25).
Fiore caused a stir in the 1950s with his abstract paintings, which at times stylistically recalled various artists, including Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam, Picasso, and one of Fiore’s professors at Black Mountain College, Ilya Bolotowsky. (He also studied with Josef Albers and Jacob Lawrence, and alongside Willem DeKooning and John Cage.) Fiore returned to Black Mountain as a faculty member until the North Carolina school closed in 1957.
But after 1959, when he began spending summers in Maine with his wife, he switched between semi-abstraction, direct landscape painting, collage, and symbolic abstractions inspired by the rock paintings he encountered. in Lascaux in Dordogne.
Apart from his collages, Able Baker’s show draws on all these periods and genres. The great pleasure of the exhibition is the intelligence with which it was hung by Tessa O’Brien, the curator and one of the partners of this artist gallery.
She encountered Fiore’s work during a residency at the Joseph Fiore Art Center at the Maine Farmland Trust, to which Fiore, who has always been interested in environmental stewardship, donated most of her work. (Another exhibit featuring many of the art centre’s alumni, “Effloresence,” is currently at the Zero Station Gallery and complements Able Baker’s exhibit very well.)
O’Brien repeatedly juxtaposes the paintings of Fiore and these nine artists in a way that emphasizes their common lineage and their differences. A variation is “Yellow Sun” by Fiore and “Tangerine and Blue” by Rachel Gloria Adams, which stand back to back. It’s a bit tricky to compare them because “Yellow Sun” is in the window, which means you have to go outside to see it.
It represents the sun rising or setting above a tree line with a bank of clouds crossing in front of it. Adams’s cotton-linen collage has that same feeling of masses floating on the surface, closer to the image plane than the plum-colored floor. He also indirectly refers to Fiore’s collage work.
An untitled abstract painting by Fiore hangs between his “Curved Trees” and “The Shape of a Cone Turning Upside Down” by Jarid del Deo, but we still see the connection clearly, despite the abstract intruder. Fiore’s shapely trees are rendered loosely and sensually in front of a snow-capped rock face. It’s a beautiful little painting reminiscent of Arthur Dove’s saturated pigment application and his reductive sense of form.
The connection to “trees” is not immediately apparent in del Deo’s work, as the main event in “Cone” is the fountain in the foreground, which is portrayed crisp and precise. But the forest behind it looks a lot like “curved trees” in its suppleness, its line and its palette. It is also interesting to note that the elements of water exchange their importance; at del Deo, the fountain takes center stage, while at Fiore, snow is in the background.
Fiore’s untitled oil on paper in between these two is primarily a scrambled abstract grid of colored squares. These geometries relate fairly directly to Lois Dodd’s “blue wall” below. Dodd (still an essential painter at 94) was a friend of Fiore’s and often accompanied him on outdoor painting tours.
The “wall” of his work resembles a quarry that has been systematically cut to extract rectangular or square stone slabs, which subtly mimics the geometry of the untitled work. Dodd extends this geometry to the reflection on the water under the quarry. It is also wonderful to notice how she achieves a liquid, reflective feel just by varying the thickness and fineness of her paint application.
And these two works relate to the muslin glued on panel of Jesse Littlefield. All three feature blue-gray and the muslin elements are also cut into rectangles. A foliated shape to the left of Littlefield’s canvas also ties it to the barely visible trees above the rock face in Dodd’s painting.
It is rewarding to make these connections, to identify them from the lively conversations that take place between them. Some are clear homage to a particular piece, like “Z (After Y Falls)” by Eleanor Conover, who responds with a mischievous wit to “Y-Falls” by Fiore. The “Y” comes from two streams that converge halfway across the rocky surface to cascade into the water.
In front of this scene are three felled trees which, in Fiore’s painting, do not quite visually connect to form a “Z” shape closer to the viewer. Not only does Conover complete the Z and title her work that way, but she features the Y upside down at the bottom of the work. Conover is also a collage of many materials, indicating another connection to Fiore’s collage work. What is most surprising, however, is that it also turns out to be a more interesting piece at the end than “Y-Falls,” its source.
Three paintings in a small space behind Littlefield’s work could easily be missed, and it would be a shame to do so as they reveal another pleasure of the spectacle: the sheer joy that all of these artists experience at the materiality of the painting. Fiore’s ‘Vernal Equinox’ is bright and lavishly coated with raw pigments in yellows, lavenders, oranges, pinks and greens. It is not dated but seems to be a later work inspired by the petroglyphs and cave paintings of Lascaux.
And Alice Jones’ “Moonrise Over Chickamauga” hanging next door is perhaps the most dynamic canvas in the exhibition, sharing with “Vernal Equinox” an enigmatic iconography (here in its tumultuous sky). The moon itself resembles a UFO, imbuing the painting with an otherworldly feeling, almost like a strange Martian landscape. It’s invigorating, energetic and hypnotic, a dark counterpoint to Fiore’s sunny equinox.
Upstairs, there is an inspired trio of two Alan Syliboy acrylics on canvas flanking Fiore’s “Red and Green”. Syliboy is Mi’kmaq, a First Nations people from the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. For him, spiritual and cultural iconography dominates the canvas. In terms of subject, this is the main event, and we feel the authenticity of Syliboy’s link with these symbols.
Between these paintings, Fiore used his own seemingly old-fashioned iconography, some of which were recognizable borrowed from Lascaux. But he immerses these symbols in the larger goals of abstract composition. What you notice most here are the intensely saturated fields of color arranged like a puzzle in segmented parts. We are left with an abstract composition with some suggestion of symbolism, while Syliboy’s is about symbols.
Fiore’s abstract paintings are his strongest, whether early or late (“Red and Green” dates from 2002). Its rectilinear landscapes are much less interesting. Competent, yes, even qualified to a certain extent. But they’re not noticeable in a truly original way, perhaps that is why he returned to abstraction and symbolism later in life. I miss the collages too, but these are hard to find. And a few works seem lost, most notably Dodd’s “Road at Night,” which hangs on its own near the doorway, exuding an understated Milton Avery presence but not connecting to anything else.
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]