January may not be the cruelest month, but by tradition it is the dullest month. Museums and galleries stagger through it with make-dos, holdovers and darkened windows. There are some exceptions to the syndrome and I report, with pleasure, on two of them.

I begin with “Weston: Leaves of Grass” at the Portland Museum of Art. I have a penchant for wildly enthusiastic declarations, but here I restrain myself by simply reporting that it embodies a golden moment in American art. I do find golden moments from time to time, but rarely as inspiring as this one. I could see this show daily over its two-month life and each time emerge enriched and instructed. The 53 small black and white images on view are a sermon about the ability of a great eye to extract intense formal and emotional values from the available world around it. Their maker, Edward Weston, produced the work in 1941, a juncture for the nation and landscape photography. Since then, time has seemed less luxurious.

Weston is a giant in the history of American photography and his images of a bell pepper, a nude tied into an abstract bow, the landscape of Point Lobes and sculptor William Edmondson are iconic. They are accepted as masterpieces and we see them frequently. He earned his living as a portrait photographer and many of his images of people are notable, but the exhibition at PMA is of a different stripe. It is the product of an opportunity he was given to cover the country at large in any fashion that appealed to him. The offer came from the venerable Limited Editions Club and his images were to accompany an edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” but without the obligation to illustrate or to recapture Whitman’s day. It was to be Weston’s America — and any connection with the poems was to be broad, at best. Weston did not know the country when he accepted. His locale was primarily California and thus the ensuing images that he made of New England, the East and South on to Louisiana were of first impressions. This accounts for their vitality, innovation and, at times, wonder. In the 10-month period of his cross-country journey, Weston opened new eyes to the face of the land and drew his viewers along with him.

It was not a matter of discovery as much as it was a matter of intense observation. He approached the land with the patience of a portrait photographer. He waited until the self-conscious moment had passed, until the land became his sitter. The generosity of Limited Editions Club’s commission made this luxury possible. Whether Weston’s work is germane to Whitman’s poems is not for me to say, but the product of the project is an inestimable gift to American art and, I think, our culture.

You can test my view by checking Weston’s view “Brooklyn, New York, 1941” (he did not give the work titles) in which he elects the spindly and not often offered Williamsburg Bridge rather than the iconic Brooklyn and Manhattan great spans. Or try “Train Signals, New Mexico, 1941” in which a vacant sky becomes a place of wonder. His great skeletal “Tree, Near Nashville, Tennessee, 1941” is juxtaposed with genteel “Mrs. Ida Sangi’s Windows, Lyndhurst, New Jersey, 1941” as is a radiator in Rutherford, New Jersey with the Boulder Dam. The “Woodlawn Plantation House, Louisiana, 1941” is an elegiac translation of dignity and privilege and the compressed “Girod Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1941” is a morbid landscape within a landscape.

The eye that found all this was inquiring but not necessarily accommodating. There is a sense in the work of the way things ought to be. Weston is in control — as a portrait photographer, he would be.

NOTED ARTISTS AT SUSAN MAASCH

It is also comforting to find “Stable: Photo 2011” at Susan Maasch Gallery. As the name implies, it is a summary of photographers the gallery represents, some of whom are of recent vintage. The names are, in general, familiar and highly regarded.

I was particularly pleased to find Keliy Anderson-Staley among them. Anderson-Staley is widely noted as a master of the collodion process, a 19th-century method that involves sensitizing thin sheets of metal or glass and exposing positive images directly onto them.

She is a maker of tintypes, an undertaking that yields images that have an inner darkness, a sense of antique flaws and perhaps fugitiveness. There is a notion of animation about them, not of the figure, but of the surface; it does not feel entirely stable. It is all bewitching and Anderson-Staley uses the method to examine the role photography has played in categorizing people in a race-conscious society. It is not easy to decode her images into racial categories. Her process frustrates the making of racial conclusions that otherwise have marked photography. Because it provides less from which to make racial assumptions, her portraits are of people as such, albeit directly confronting and intense.

I responded to the boldness of Tom Baril’s silver gelatin portraits of apples and calla lilies. They are in your face and deservedly self-important. Andreas Konrath’s black and white (almost everything in the show is in black and white) portraits of Patti Smith and Kanye West have an almost startling immediacy.

I omit the remaining artists in this 10-artist show, because in most cases I have written of them at some length in the past. 

Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 45 years. He can be contacted at:

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