FREEPORT — Tom Crotty is the owner of the Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport. Founded in 1966, it’s the oldest commercial gallery in Maine and shows several artists of note, including 93-year-old Dahlov Ipcar.
Crotty is also a talented landscape painter who had a solo exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in 2003.
On April 15, The Portland Press Herald ran an op-ed written by Crotty titled, “Commotion over labor mural does real Maine artists no favors,” in which Crotty asserted that great art isn’t political.
History, however, says otherwise. Michelangelo, Bach, Raphael and so many of our greatest artists worked almost exclusively for the ultimate (and short-leashed) political authority: the church.
Distilled lists of the greatest works of art are inevitably filled with political works, from Diego Velaquez’s “Las Meninas” (a portrait of a royal family) to Picasso’s “Guernica.”
Hitler and Stalin even acknowledged the political power of art and seized many avant-garde and abstract works, labeling them “degenerate.”
In his op-ed, Crotty also argued that Judy Taylor’s “History of Maine Labor” mural — which was removed at the order of Gov. Paul LePage from the Department of Labor building in Augusta in March, an act that garnered national attention — is “nothing more than a sophomoric panorama of tired, cliched images of depressed-looking, forlorn people that have been presented time and time again.”
Between Crotty’s barred-tooth stance and the fact that Judy Taylor has an exhibition of her work now on view at Thos. Moser’s Freeport showroom, this is a great moment for a trip to Freeport if you want to think about the mural issue in terms of actual art rather than heated debate.
Frost Gully Gallery features mostly landscapes, although Ipcar’s ever-popular, prancing animal fantasies comprise nine of the 43 works in the show.
The only artist with more works in the show is Ted Wengren. While I like nothing more than landscape painting in general, I am not a fan of Wengren’s dry and scratchy surfaces or his stiffly bleak compositions.
Yet there is plenty of good stuff at Frost Gully. I particularly like Janet Manyan’s diminutive still lifes painted with a deliciously flickering brush.
I thought Janice Anthony’s aerial landscape “Pearl Ponds” was one of the best works at the 2010 CMCA Biennial, so I was very pleased to see it again.
Laurence Sisson’s ambitious “Sea Garden Sculpture” is a large painting that shifts between almost hallucinatory clarity among the visual bands of rocks exposed by low tide and semi-distant waves that ride a well-honed brush technique. (I immediately thought this is what a Maine seascape by Max Ernst would look like).
My favorite artist in the Frost Gully group show is Tom Glover. Glover often centers objects (e.g., a fishing boat or lobster trap) in his images and turns them into abstractions by pressing the internal logic of his subjects out to the edges of the image.
They remind me of Diebenkorn (a favorite), but with radial logic. Not only can Glover handle a brush, he also uses his bold palette to pull together his compositional, structural and rhythmic sensibilities so that his works are both appealing and visually complex.
Down the street from Frost Gully is the Thos. Moser Showroom, where Taylor’s diverse show includes several presentation studies for the now-hidden labor mural as well as a broad range of her paintings: from an interior with dancers to still lifes, landscapes and even a pair of reclining nudes.
Despite the high level of realism in Taylor’s figurative work, her bold hand is always recognizably evident.
My favorite painting depicts an old woman who survived the Holocaust seated with two friends in front of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum. (She was hidden as a young girl with a farm family in Belgium while the Nazis killed half her relatives.)
The woman points upward while commenting on a piece. I was first drawn to the painting because the foreground figures with scenes behind them reminded me of the labor mural, but I found myself moved by the painting’s upliftingly honest faith in the quiet triumph of human culture despite humanity’s cyclical predilection for inflicting atrocity upon ourselves.
With so much discussion about Taylor’s “History of Maine Labor” mural, it’s a great chance to see some of her work in person — just down the street from the gallery owned by one of her most outspoken critics. A visit to Freeport now offers a great chance to use our eyes instead of our mouths to help us think about an important chapter in the history of Maine art.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: