For a springtime art outing, it’s hard to beat the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, which opened on May 1.
Perched dramatically above Narrow Cove, it’s a perfect place to explore art indoors and outdoors in the beautifully landscaped sculpture gardens. There are three temporary exhibitions currently in the galleries: “Remember the Ladies”, “One Hand Clapping” (until July 16) and “The Surface and Below” (until July 9).
“Ladies” focuses on women artists who painted in Ogunquit from 1900 to 1950. Despite its anachronistic-sounding title, it’s a hugely rewarding experience. This title quotes Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband, John Adams, in which she asked him, while he was writing the Articles of Confederation, to consider changing a law that made women the property of men. The first lady was of course right. But it has little to do with the arts, and that language seems deceptively outdated for the impressive works on display.
A title from the art world itself could have had more impact: “A Passion for Line and Color” (Mary Cassatt), “What A Woman Can Do” (Artemisia Gentileschi) or “Revolutionary Acts” ( based on art critic Jerry Saltz’s observation that “just being a female artist is still a revolutionary act”).
Any of them would have better captured the spirit of these women’s visions, especially that of Gertrude Fiske. Take a good look at its “purple orange trees” (hanging too high here). There’s no shyness or cuteness in her flamboyant palette or confident application of pigment. Fiske depicted the darkness of the woods in deep, inky eggplants and the sun streaming through the trees in livid oranges and yellows.
It is remarkable that this painting was made in 1935, as it foreshadows Wolf Kahn, who was only 8 years old at the time and who would not take his first art class until three years later. Kahn’s work (which, for the record, I adore) looks pretty and decorative by contrast – even what we might once have called, ahem, “feminine.”
Fiske’s “Jade Bracelet” is a truly magnificent still life. Yet what makes it interesting is its composition. Its simplicity and the predominance of white space give it a graphic and modernist look. Just for good measure, she gave the Ukiyo-e print in the background an abstract expressionist makeover!
Nellie A. Knopf is another star. The saturated palette of his “Untitled (New England Boats)” is hardly Fauvist. It’s also refreshing to note that these women were mostly inspired by each other rather than the male artists. Of course, they were enrolled in Charles Woodbury’s Summer School of Drawing and Painting, and he was, by all accounts, an encouraging and encouraging teacher. But the wall texts – unfortunately just a shade lighter than the mauve walls, making them hard to read – explain that, for example, Elizabeth Jewell turned to Laura Combs and Susan Ricker Knox (her “High Noon” is terrific), as well as George Noyce. Anne Carleton’s muses were Fiske, Mabel May Woodward, Elizabeth Sawtelle and Charlotte Butler.
A quartet of paintings of women on the beach at Woodward, all from 1925, are wonderful for many reasons: their sense of the warmth of the sun, their ability to convey so much with minimal gestures, and a vivid color palette that practically brightens up the rest of the room. . They make similar subjects by American Impressionist male predecessors Maurice Prendergast and Henry Potthast seem muddy and sugary in comparison.
Woodward and the other performers here were definitely “ladies”. But they were also innovating, eclipsing the precedents set by their male counterparts and innovating themselves. I’m with Patti Smith, who said, “As an artist, I never wanted to be shackled by sex… They don’t do that with men – nobody says Picasso, the male artist. ” Or, with the Guerilla Girls, who sarcastically listed in their article “The Benefits of Being a Female Artist” this: “Be reassured that whatever type of art you make will be labeled feminine.” Now, there is a title that would have had teeth: “Labeled Feminine”.
Nor is the feminine what comes to mind when you enter the light-filled central gallery where “One Hand Clapping: Jo Sandman” is on display. Sandman studied with Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann, and it is clear from works like “St. Cloud” (1960) that she had a natural talent for abstract expressionism. But Sandman obviously wanted to go beyond that genre and medium in his exploration of his spiritual goals.
Indeed, what is most surprising in “Clapping” is the variety of materials she has chosen in this pursuit: pieces of coral, burnt paper, roofing tar, rubber for inner tubes, sheet of insulation, automobile radiator pipes filled with plaster, medical x-rays. . She used painting, photography, collage and sculpture in service of the essence of the sublime and the transience of existence.
Unsurprisingly, there is a preponderance of bones and skulls. In 2006, while suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, she had her wrist x-rayed using the 19th century technique of gelatin silver print. It’s part of his “Light Memory” series, a title that goes straight to the heart of the mystical belief in the unceasing dynamism of reality. This, like any traditional photograph, becomes memory a fraction of a second after it is developed on paper. Immediately after this, bone density probably increases or decreases, pressure on the median nerve decreases or increases, numbness subsides or intensifies. Nothing stays the same from one second to the next. Even the light that allowed the exposure changed immediately.
Sandman often carved sand dollars and pieces of coral with faces that resemble death masks. Less obviously, the works she created by burning overlapping sheets of paper elicit a flood of metaphors: extinct life, decay, the King James version of Genesis 3:19 (“from ashes to ashes”). One looks like a skull, another an amoeba. Yet despite their evocation of the ephemeral, we are aware of the incredible precision with which Sandman burned this paper to achieve exactly these works. Same with “Untitled (Continuities)”, a sculpture that looks like worms or snakes or spirochetes of cell morphology – all life forms that evolve and eventually die.
Finally, “The Surface and Below”, presents the encaustic paintings of Bostonian expressionist Kahlil G. Gibran, godson and cousin of the famous mystical poet, writer and philosopher. It lives up to its title because these paintings are, in a physical as well as a contemplative sense, layers. Physically, they are constructed with translucent films of paint. Many of their titles (“Ocean Floor”, “Mussel Bed”, “Seeded Ground”) also indicate terrestrial surface and depth strata. But it is also about manifestation in general, which arises and falls back into a mysterious source.
The best of them, like “Bones”, work on all these levels. But others just feel a bit busy or murky and boring. A lack of concentration in composition and uniformity of texture throughout doesn’t really give the eye a place to rest. Seeing one or two seems fulfilling, but 13 in a room is close to monotonous.
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]