One of the few perks that go with writing this column is an occasional pre-publication catalog. An early arrival can set the tone for an ensuing show. It can suggest things to look for and spare the reading of wall texts. (Extensive wall texts account for more reduction of my gallery energy than the art itself.)
This is a lead-in for the Madeleine de Sinety exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. I had heard de Sinety’s name over the years and knew that she was a photographer, but couldn’t connect her with any particular image.
Then, one day, the show’s catalog appeared, and all that changed.
It wasn’t quite a revelation, but the intensity of much of the work in it lifted de Sinety into the realm of serious attention. Its photographs of a village in Brittany struck me as an evocation of a form of communal life that is in such delicate balance as to make the images wistful.
As to the show itself, there are portraits of people in it that will make your heart ache. It is the placing of those people into the long afternoon shadows of a society about to become more legend than fact that is the artist’s achievement.
She recorded the visual smell of a history on the edge of change. And she did it without coyness, without the antiseptic eye of an anthropologist and without undue sentimentality.
Photographing an isolated farm village in Brittany, France, over a period of 21 years is going to generate deep affection, but preventing that from becoming sticky — especially when the subject appears so willing — takes a surgical eye. There are enough images in this large show to demonstrate that eye. There is sympathy, but it does not intrude on de Sinety’s sense of the iconic. She knows what held that village together.
The Portland show is divided into four sections: Poilley, the small town in Brittany, in the years 1972 through 1993; Poilley in the year 2001; Uganda, 1998-2000; and Maine, 1985-1995.
De Sinety lived in Poilley for eight years, became an unremarked fixture and photographed with evident affection and gratitude. The community opened itself to her (she is a native of France), and the resulting images are documents obtained through the eye of an artist.
The intention was, for the most part, to make a record, but this does not eliminate considerations of harmony, tension and other ingredients of the fine arts.
Comparing the images achieved between 1972 and 1993 with those made during the return in 2001, the former seem more conceptual, more determined to capture the iconic moment, more formal. There is lunch under the apple trees, Christine and Collette’s First Communion, the slaughtering of a pig, haying, a family supper and a wake. The execution in each case is arresting, although a bit anticipated.
The 2001 images from Poilley are looser and more animated, based more on availability than the cycle of the day or of the year. “Sunday Morning Poilley” — two older men (twins?) going to church, Catherine and Christelle on the shore at low tide and a gaggle of geese waiting to intimidate the postman. It is less a freezing of moments than of just happening to be passing by.
To the extent that the Portland show is a full survey of the artist’s work, Poilley is de Sinety’s prime achievement to date, a magnificent entity in itself.
I should add that I have been talking about classic black-and-white photographs. They, of course, add an archival flavor to the event.
There are a few images in color, but their tonality seems fugitive and deprived of the saturations to which we are accustomed. I find them evocative of old technology and thus charming, but Poilley in this event comes largely in black and white, and will capture your heart.
The remaining sections — Uganda and Maine — are not of as high an order. The former is a fine story about everyday life in an African village, but it is largely anticipatory, and does not obtain the edge of the Brittany photographs. I take this as inevitable — months in residence aren’t years — and the group has undoubted sociologic interest. I don’t mean to lessen their aesthetic merit — there are some beautiful images — but here, de Sinety has shown us pretty much what we expect to see.
The Maine images might best be shown apart from those of Poilley. They seem to be reaching in that direction, but are damaged by the intensity given off by the chef d’oeuvre. Poilley remains monumental and singular.
CHARMING AND CONFOUNDING
I recommend a show at the University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn College, not because Androscoggin may be yanked out of the 2nd District and hauled into the 1st, but because the gallery is a continuing venue for work that has an artisanal component.
When it comes to work that requires skills of a high manual order, Lewiston-Auburn College leads the pack. The art it shows often has an idiosyncratic view of the order of things. The exhibitions here are ever fresh.
The current show is “James Strickland, Waypoints,” with a subtitle “Happenstance and Longed-for Arrivings.” One look at the event’s brochure, and I was hooked. It combined my fascination for Japanese temples and kites, for model planes (I built them, imperfectly) and ships, and for small, exquisitely articulated wooden objects.
If you harbor such an unlikely congregation of images within you, this show will come dangerously close to dazzling you. If you don’t, on a higher level it will direct your attention to the concept of weightlessness.
The artist is motivated by the principle of floating and the ability of art to detach us from certain physical laws that impede that circumstance. He is also interested in energy as represented by mechanics blended into art. Thus, engineering, in the form of physical structures, and energy-producing devices such as solar panels enter into his work.
The work in this show can compound into delicate, lavishly colored or gilded structures, encasing or supporting elements of infinite complexity and carrying such descriptions as “Maquette for heliocentric weathervane sculpture with solar voltaic self-energized lighting system for park plaza.” For an amateur such as I, it is all a bit of surrealism gone hard, but more delectable than I can say.
This is a show that takes a long time to see. A piece such as “Solar Tower” will charm and confound you, and the model for “Memorial for the Disappeared” is of the order of Le Corbusier, Frank Ghery and Oscar Niemeyer. It should be built in a place where space is an endless vista.
There is a boundary between cleverness and art. This is often seen in what was once (and perhaps still is) called assemblage. Simply put, it means a bringing together of articles that are not in themselves objects of art and creating a work of art from them. Skillful people often approach the boundary, but most don’t make it across.
For the work of an artist that transcends cleverness, see “John Sideli, The Sum of the Parts” at Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor. Sideli has shown in Maine before, but never with such brio and finesse.
There is nothing tentative in his pieces; they join as aesthetic destiny intended them to do. Born to lives of smaller virtue, they, at the hand of Sideli, escape from an inglorious end to gather joyfully on the walls of the cognoscenti.
Here, cleverness does not reign. Here, pieces of intrinsic virtue, but intended for other performances, accept the obligation of carrying forward under new titles and with new companions. As I said, it’s not cleverness; it’s the destiny of a lucky few.
I note “Temperature Rising,” a somewhat Rube Goldberg-ish framed composition of a tiny rusted model of a wrecker. The model sits atop a gold ball supported by a tapered shaft painted in three colors, offset by a suspended clock face and a globe and by assorted small balls.
It’s terrific, as is “Stencils,” a typographic achievement, and “Track One,” from the glorious days of railroading.
See it. It doesn’t get any better.
Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 46 years. He can be contacted at: