In case it’s been missed, there’s so much going on this summer in the Maine art scene that many times I’ve written about multiple shows in a review to try and cover more.
Sometimes these shows have a common thread; other times not. At the most basic level, which links “Activated Spaces” at the Alice Gauvin Gallery in Portland and two exhibitions at the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland – “Working Women and By the River” by Lois Dodd and the associated exhibitions “New Watercolors” ( Al Critchton) and “New Work” (Brenda Free) – is painting. All close on September 11.
But these also provide an opportunity to contemplate how the illusion of depth, or lack thereof, contributes to the work of various artists. “Activated Spaces” concerns, from a curatorial point of view, the objects, the color and the light that the four artists exhibited – Sarah Lubin, Mark Milroy, Brian Rego and Gail Spaien – select and how they “activate” the spaces of their canvases . Yet the space itself is what intrigues me the most about this show.
The depth of space is a delicate matter. The illusion of this is a revered tradition, something that one-point perspective greatly improved during the Renaissance. But many modern movements, especially Pop Art, have eschewed space for a flatter, more visible face (see Andy Warhol). Flatness can appear cartoonish, which works when association is skillfully harnessed (Roy Lichtenstein), or when it embraces graphic art to comment on pop culture (Robert Indiana, Warhol).
At Gauvin (actually a pop-up of the Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York), Spaien’s work follows this extremely thin line. His paintings – like those of Will Barnet or Alex Katz – come precariously close to graphic art in their flatness. These are pleasing scenes of idyllicly composed vistas, usually overlooking a Maine seascape. There is a horizon line, but it never really seems that far away. In “Observed Landscape #7”, the puzzle on the table inside the windows looks practically the same plane as the shimmering sea beyond. She brings together favorite objects and shapes—a rattan chair, a lighthouse, a tree—in near-utopian views that offer respite from the hum of our hectic lives.
This technique could have been schmaltzy with more depth of field (imagine the same scene painted by Thomas Kinkade, for example). Yet here flatness more closely aligns Spaien’s paintings with both Japanese art – whether you’re talking about Hokusai or Murakami’s postmodern Superflat movement – and many forms of geometric abstraction, from Kasimir Malevich to Al Held (most evident in the interpretation of the shimmering light on the surface of the water as a sea of squares of varying colors).
Milroy displays more three-dimensionality than Spaien, but then inserts something in the foreground that drastically shortens the image. In the wonderfully eerie painting “Last Day of Autumn”, we see horsemen further into the woods and a group of oddly colored sculptural sawn tree trunks (as well as a horse’s head) through the flattened element of three trees in the foreground.
In his “Still Life with Serpent”, a clear reference to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, this troublesome asp curls up on a wonderfully rendered wooden slab, drawing attention to the surface.
In Lubin’s paintings, foreground and background are not only compressed, they merge in a mind-blowing way. In “The Spoon”, a cat’s body (which seems an obvious reference to Barnet) appears partially in front of a fence-like grid, while the other half is behind. The woman’s face appears partially shadowed behind a de Chirico-style surreal glove, while her leg and boot appear parallel to the plane in which the glove exists.
In “Esplanade”, a flower-strewn meadow moves from background to foreground, becoming the skirt of one subject and the hat and face of another. A reclining figure at the back has a triangular head reminiscent of Lynn Chadwick’s sculptures. It is clear that Lubin is referring to a wide vocabulary of art history, while leaving the fascinating viewer suspended somewhere between the planes.
In four of Rego’s six paintings on display, depth becomes an important tool for conveying an unsettling sense of a distorted horizon or, as in “Encircled”, a strangely ominous threat. In the latter, our gaze on a woman walking her dog is ethereal. You’d think the ‘circled’ in the title refers to the trees that surround the seaside park it’s in – until we notice the shadows of three birds surrounding it and see that she seems to be running away from them as she looks uncomfortably over her shoulder. The space between our aerial view and the ground is suddenly filled with tension.
In “Fishing Day”, “Girl on a Dock”, and “Girl in a Garden”, the horizon line curves, much like the view the pilots see outside the cockpit, which appears to mirror the outline of the planet. This makes us spin visually, especially when Rego inserts a flattening element (i.e. the dock), further confusing our depth perception.
BACK – AND BEFORE – HISTORY
For most of her career, the superficiality of perspective is what gave Lois Dodd’s paintings their characteristic sense of enchanting reality. There isn’t really any mystery in his work; things are just what they seem.
Dodd’s distillation of form and elements flirts with abstraction in their simplicity, and color is layered without much modulation. A cluster of brushstrokes in multiple shades of green blend effortlessly into “Spruce Seedling.” A shadow in the folds of a leaf hung to dry can be a quickly painted mixture of grays, pinks and yellows; shadows on her nudes a few purplish-brown streaks.
The nudes in this show, in particular, are disarmingly charming. “Woman with Axe” (2009) is, literally, nothing else. There is a pile of logs and a naked woman wielding her axe. The rest of the painting is just a mottled field of green, with no depth to speak of. It brings the absurdity of the scene to the fore at the same time as she asks, “What’s so weird about a naked woman chopping wood?” There is more dimensionality in “Nude Sawing in House Frame” and “Nude with Blue Drape” (both from 2002), but the trees in the distance are completely subservient to the action in the foreground, making the landscape look almost functional.
Earlier paintings show more depth, which tells us that Dodd kept simplifying and distilling over time. “Night Sky Between Buildings” has probably the greatest depth of perspective, with the shadowy riverside in the foreground, the water in the middle distance, and a moody expansive sky clearly in the distance. This painting, from 1978, also has a more expressionistic treatment of color, with many depths of shade blending into each other.
Even the older nudes, as in “Three Nudes and Dog Underneath Trees”, painted in the same year, pay much more attention to the application and perspective of painterly colors. In all of this, though, it’s amazing how much Dodd can convey with so little.
Brenda Free’s acrylic paintings on paper are a curious phenomenon. Free’s background is in graphic design for advertising, typically an area associated with smooth, superficial images – both visually and conceptually. And certainly, his preoccupation with the motif might have roots there. However, the paradox is that the way she layers the patterns creates a tremendous sense of depth, whether that depth is that of shadow, ocean or landscape.
Free spent a decade living on a sailboat, which is evident in “Immersion” and “Slipway.” The feeling of depth in the first is both vertical (one feels a descent into the water from top to bottom) and spatial (the superposition of aquatic plant forms forms from front to back). The latter refers to an inclined surface on which boats are repaired, built and/or launched – here depicted as a pink and brown airplane on the surface of the paper with blue and green ocean tones below. Even “Finding Home” relates to life on water in its depiction of a creek meandering through stretches of land.
“Ombre”, on the other hand, layers greens in a way that mimics the experience of gazing deep into the shadow cast by a tree, where plant forms in the most light-deprived nooks appear to be of a darker green than those near the light break. In all of his paintings, Free also scrapes more patterns into the paint. Enigmatic symbols or figures can appear at any depth, from these surface stripes to the lowest layers of color and pattern, creating a depth of meaning as well as space.
Crichton also touches on sea forms in the beautiful watercolor “Deep Sea”. Here, however, the anemones, coral forms and gorgonians seem to have been laid out on the paper rather than existing in their aquatic environment. Liquid bleeds, smudges, and washes of paint exist in both the background and foreground, flattening the perspective but nonetheless animating that perspective with visual effects.
Depth of field plays more of a role in landscape works such as the one referred to in the document as “Summer Uprising” (referred to as “Sunrise” on Caldbeck’s website) and, in particular, the spellbinding “Lovely , Dark and Deep”, a horizontal view of the sky through the trees.
But the lack of depth in Crichton’s work is no obstacle at all. In fact, what makes his paintings so irresistible is first of all their intimacy (they all measure 12.7 cm by 17.8 cm) and their tactility. This tactility starts with the paper and goes through the different ways Crichton applies color – stippling (“Family”), scribbling (“Messenger”), washing (“Untitled”), hatching (“Mother Earth is really pissed off”). and soon. This creates a density of color which, due to these varying techniques, also seems to dissolve the images as they come together. The resulting ephemeral is pure poetry.
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]