The title to the show notwithstanding — “Old Friends/New Work” — Tom Hall and Lissa Hunter struck me as an odd combination. Hall is a master of darkness. You grapple for light when you digest one of his paintings. That search gives them their urgency.
Hunter, by long occupation, is a basket maker who has gently tapped the sublime. I have seen examples of her work that were so demure and fragile that they touched my heart. Hall’s paintings and Hunter’s baskets — fat bravura strokes versus the delicate intensity of a Swiss watchmaker — would not relax in company with each other, friendship or not.
These were my thoughts when I first heard of the show at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland. My perceptions turned out to be wrong, largely because Hunter appeared as a draftsman-painter and not as an artisan. To jump from a craft in which she had achieved high recognition into the dangerous waters of drawing and painting was cause for speculation.
In any event, the jump was a secure one; Hunter, I have learned, trained as a painter before she began making baskets. Her compositions in this show, although independently achieved, have an attitude that is coincidental to that of Hall’s. I think of Hall as elegiac. He reflects on the Shakers, on the old hills along the Saco River, on woodlands that have been clear-cut, on cornfields that have been harvested.
He maintains enough edge to prevent the images from sliding into melancholy; otherwise stated, he uses darkness to displace wistfulness. It is not a matter of balancing between light and darkness; his paintings are not nocturnes. Rather, through the agency of darkness, he comments on the elapse of events with considerable passion. His paintings can be quite remarkable.
Returning to Hunter, here she appears as a commentator on nature — on stones, leaves, pods, birds and so on. The subjects invite a cordial embrace, but like Hall, she keeps her distance. Birds roosting as day ends merge into coagulated dark masses. Dark flowers have darker leaves in a mottled space. Leaves, stones and pods are offered in articulated muscular form. It is all consequential and, at least in suggestion, dark. The decorative opportunities provided by the subject matter are declined.
To sum things up, here are two intense artists with very little in common other than their individual intensities and inclinations toward darkness. Those ingredients are somehow sufficient. This is an extremely good show.
FIORE FRIENDS SHARE A SOFT SONG
I now comment on two events — one is a group show in Damariscotta and the other is a group show in Tenants Harbor. I wandered into both, or perhaps was wafted into them by some favoring wind, and while it wasn’t deja vu all over again, their attitudes were almost identical.
The Damariscotta show is at the Firehouse and is called “Fiore Friends.” The Tenants Harbor show is at the Mars Hall Gallery and is called “The Drawing Group, DuBack & Company.”
I can now report, with some pleasure, that the late Joseph Fiore and Charles DuBack not only knew each other, but had many friends in common. I observe this from the artists represented in each show and from a certain lyrical commonality.
It may be a bit of a stretch to take 20 or 30 established artists and find a common thread, but in all of the work in both shows — and there are some major figures in each — there is a generosity, an easy reaching out to the audience.
I note the handsome quarters at the Firehouse. The old spaces have been reconfigured and beautifully presented. Filled with light, works by 20 or more artists hang in congregational respect for one another. That is an odd comment to make, but the sense of commonality is palpable in this show. Perhaps the gallery helped, perhaps it was the gorgeous late summer day, but they were all singing the same soft song.
I think you should be able to imagine Sam Cady, Janice Kasper, Sam Gelber, Jim Kineally, Alex Katz, John Wissemann and Cynthia Hyde in chorus. And, of course, add the ubiquitous DuBack and, in this instance, Fiore. The latter’s paintings “Lenape/Moki” and “Capriccio” are softly mysterious. They evoke faded hands from lost cultures and faded land to harbor them.
It is a paced show that’s an easy feast for the eye, and Lois Dodd’s “Rockland Ruin” is a wry masterpiece disguised by casualness. It belongs in a museum.
THE DRAWING GROUP: STRONG BY NATURE
Maine has established groups that draw from the nude. Some are seasonal, some meet weekly and, although I have been told that the participants don’t check out each other’s work, they seem to draw strength from one another’s presence.
One, the Drawing Group, has for years met regularly over the summer months, and selections from it make up the show at Mars Hall. It is a beautiful occasion. I use that term to suggest the casualness of such groups and, in many cases, the modest prices of the work that comes from it.
Here I mention Cady’s soft, certain charcoal “Pose Twice,” Dodd’s pen-and-inks of figures disporting themselves in nature, Lynn Travis’ serene watercolors of allusive ephemeral groups, Sheila White’s androgynous (to me) figures and, of course, the ever-present DuBack.
This is an opportunity to see DuBack’s study for “River Harmony,” the large work he completed for Lehman Brothers in 1965. The study is small but speaks in consequential tones.
While at Mars Hall, look for work by Leo Brooks (1909-93). There is a compounding of Matisse, Hartley and Fitzgerald into a base and then a raucous finale to set the place on fire. I don’t recall a large retrospective of this wonderful artist, but one would be felicitous. Look also for collages in firm modernist form by Marilyn Quint-Rose. They are notable, as is a sprinkling of collages by DuBack.
Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 45 years. He can be contacted at: