Art professor emeritus Abbott Meader began teaching at Colby College in 1961. Meader was a student of Richard Diebenkorn, one of America’s most influential post-war painters and a leader of the Bay Area Figurative Movement.

Diebenkorn’s work – most notably his seminal “Ocean Park” series – came to define the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and landscape painting in America. With this idea of painting-as-place as its foundation, Meader’s painting ebbs and flows between abstraction and landscape.

An exhibition of Meader’s landscapes in pastel, collage and oil is now on view at June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland. “Drawn from the Earth” is drawn from Meader’s work made in the 1980s to the present. It shows us an artist who is always recognizable, even when he engages directly with work of other painters.

For example, the color, palette and structure of Meader’s 1987 oil “Late May, Martin Stream,” clearly references a pair of Van Gogh’s paintings from 1888: “Fishing Boats on the Beach” and “Langlois Bridge at Arles.” The composition turns like a carousel around the centered pole of a mast-like tree. And while a hefty dark log diagonally crossing the center could stop the motion, it gestures dynamically like an oar and only seems to encourage the racing of the spring melt stream. What makes this Meader rather than Van Gogh is the way we are physically placed at the scene. Van Gogh’s metaphysical inclinations constantly leave his body behind while Meader’s nature is a place for people (the viewer, to be specific). Meader describes his vantage as “Maine seen at the scale of a person who is moving at a hiker’s pace and trying not to trip over a root or a stone.”

The great master of this mode was Andrew Wyeth. His 1944 “Turkey Pond,” for example, shows a man ahead of us on a dry grass path. What makes it a masterpiece is the wealth of subconscious information conveyed to the viewer: We are on that path and since it’s not so clear, our eyes are tied to our feet and where our steps will fall. This is the priority of the painting rather than the destination barely glimpsed over the hill. Meader similarly prioritizes our path. But instead of conveying the wordlessness of men hunting, he intimates why nature and art go so well together.

While Meader reminds us of how Van Gogh helped free color from the job of describing light and volume (think Fauvism and its push towards abstraction), in his oil pastels, Meader often looks to light as a vehicle for color. And it is on these pastel landscapes that the show turns, pushing off from there toward the exquisitely-composed collage landscapes and then the paintings with all their brainy power.

Meader’s torn-paper collages feel surprisingly complete. This could be the result of working on a flat surface in the studio (imagine covering a flat object with paper as opposed to painting outside on an easel). Whatever the reason, Meader’s collages are particularly well-designed and satisfying compositions.

While I have always been a fan of the bold exuberance and flowing clarity of Meader’s oil pastel landscapes, it’s his paintings that most easily reveal his exceptional abilities and singular sensibilities. Meader’s “Angel, Meltout,” for example, is a landscape detail directed toward our feet, but it is executed with Abstract Expressionist-inspired brushwork that flattens it like an abstract composition. Meader lets the viewer tip the work whichever way he prefers.

One of Meader’s grateful former students compared the 1984 oil “Runoff Near Red Brook” to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2.” It was a great comparison except that Meader has internalized the lessons of abstraction, so instead of a moving figure in profile, he creates a dialogue between the gravity-drawn runoff and the painted visual surface through which it navigates. The artist’s lusciously loose brushwork lightens the flavor so that the cold is not uncomfortable but refreshingly crisp.

My favorite work of the show is another landscape ground detail. “Winterspring” is a tightly wound, highly-glazed, square-format view of the ground as though every element were arranged and glued in place. Its unexpected organization and unnatural clarity make the scene feel hallucinatory (think Gregory Gillespie). The vivid details and taut rhythms work together to hold your eye within the self-contained composition so that it’s hard to look away. It is simultaneously gem-like but visceral, as though it’s part stained glass masterpiece and part lurid car accident.

Nancy Meader’s pottery is a welcome complement to Abbott’s landscapes. Clay is a particular strength of June Fitzpatrick and so the installation handsomely flows back and forth between the pots and the pictures. While they all have an elegantly light touch, most notable are the horsehair raku vessels that the Meaders make together. The coarse horsehair is applied when the slip covered pots are exposed at 1800 degrees; the ensuing smoky abstractions are fantastic.

One of the most striking aspects of this show is the extent to which it is so seasonally apt. Mud season in Maine is our worst and ugliest time, but it takes Meader outside. His wondrous fascination with the transformation of the awakening landscape is contagious.

 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:[email protected]