Richard Brown Lethem effectively has two separate shows on view at the Maine Jewish Museum. One, titled “Afflictions,” flows like a river of moral energy through rapids of human misery and conflict. The figurative works, mostly from the 1980s, pulse with objects, stories and maxims that the artist underscores with accompanying poetic phrases.

“Nebraska Triangle” features more intimate (and more recent) paintings that lean towards abstraction with bits of totemic imagery floating to the fore. These works hint at maps, personal places, mystical visions, sand or cave painting, and symbols that suggest artifacts, mysticism and environmentalism influenced by Native American history and culture.

While the newer works have a lesser sense of urgency than the visceral engagement of “Afflictions,” the bodies of work share far more than the recognizable hand of a single artist. In fact, they are more united by their underlying moral philosophy than by Brown Lethem’s painting style. Moreover, their shared aesthetic reaches back through American Regionalism (no doubt related to having grown up in Missouri and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute in the early 1950s) and into early Modernism’s concerns with the everyman’s struggle for justice and an unpoisoned perspective.

Several of Brown Lethem’s narrative works recount specific stories: “The Falling Red Hat,” for example, is about a black man who was arrested then wrested from the sheriff by a mob so they could burn him alive – without any semblance of due process. “Threading the Needle” is about a Brooklyn man who was found on the street, dead of an overdose. The thrust of the “Nebraska Triangle” work, however, is not about the specific but the breadth of the critical issues. Brown Lethem’s largest and most powerful works are from the late ’80s and their accompanying phrases succinctly deliver broader social maxims. Accompanied by his snarling dog, the bold figure of the “The Clever Tomb Guard” is about to lose to lightning the kite he has long flown in a storm “despite the vicissitudes of civil war and the waning days of the empire,” the wall text reads. The gorgeously painted “Eerie Basin” – however dark and smeary – presents a man dumping a trash can in the dark of night with the simple stipulation that “what goes down, must come up.” And “While the Worker Sleeps” shows a literal dog-eat-dog nightmare raging in the stormy dreams of the American worker.

“While the Worker Sleeps,” from “Afflictions.” photo by George Barker

Brown Letham’s older paintings do not hide their bold content, but literalism and narrative are fugitive in the subtle “Nebraska Triangle” work. There, the imagery is fleeting, like traces of symbols long ago nearly erased from buckskin or adobe walls. The fractured bits force us to follow like a hunter barely tracking the very cold trail of long-passed prey. A feather. A stick. Triangles here and there. Vague symbols. These are all tracks, quiet and dissociated, but proof that there is a strand of story, of life, of meaning. The triangle is the vaguest wisp of a map, a child’s fleeting memory, history fading. Brown Lethem is driven by the mystery rather than the arrogance of promised knowledge. In a nutshell, this is Romanticism fully opposed to Enlightenment thinking. And this is what stitches together the two bodies of work.

“Clever Tomb Guard,” from “Afflictions.” Photo by George Barker

It would be nice if we could get all we need from a pairing as pithy (and brilliant) as “sense” and “sensibility.” But Brown Lethem’s concerns lead us away from the Enlightenment’s inclination for the clarity of science to moral philosophy where the Romantic Revolution grappled with complicated notions like freedom and aesthetics. I see no better terms for Brown Lethem than the towering figure of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s take on freedom, for example, followed the idea of “autonomy” – from the Greek words for “self” and “rule.” Freedom, in other words, isn’t chaos or anarchy, but the self in a setting of free will governed by one’s own morality.

These ideas enter like a flash onto Brown Lethem’s sympathetic references to Native Americans – and specifically to the tribes of the area we now know as Nebraska. One canvas features a burning paper marked “1877” which, absent other markers, we almost have to take as a reference to when the government overthrew the Treaty of 1854 and forced the Poncas to relocate to Oklahoma. Despite the specific reference, the artist leaves us with the aesthetic of historical wrongdoing rather than the specifics of any crime – wrongful wandering or, at the very least, pointless. And this broader notion of individual perspective and morality – rather than anesthetized historical fact – leaves us with the romantic priority of life and mystery. Nodding to Mary Shelley, we could say the animal is not the carcass on the dissecting table, but the life in the living organism.

“Eerie Basin,” from “Afflictions.” Photo by George Barker

The Berwick-based Brown Lethem began coming to Maine in 1991. And it was about that time that he shifted his main current of content from human conflict to quieter concerns like the humanitarian whisper of environmentalism. But the correlation on timing does not explain how his work shifted or why.

How do we follow Brown Lethem’s move from his human-condition “Afflictions” to the less specific and mystical works of “Nebraska Triangle”? These self-articulated works are at once both unique to the artist and universal in message. This led me straight to Kant’s notion of the “categorical imperative’ which he explained in 1785: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Considering the anti-war position of the artist’s Quakerism, we can easily see the “Afflictions” as Brown Lethem’s own categorical imperatives.

“Negotiation,” from “Nebraska Triangle.” Photo by George Barker

He shifts from the struggle for specific freedom and autonomy to a more inclusive perspective. He originally sets out to speak as an individual in universal terms then acquires a more universal perspective that prioritizes mystery. The appeal is evident: It is softer, quieter and less likely to be read as preachy or moralistic. The experience is one we can share with the artist instead of one that requires us to agree (or not) with his imperatives.

In the two shows, we move with him from specific meaning to the shared space of mystery.

Brown Lethem is an extraordinarily talented and erudite painter whose work has been honored by museums and about whom books have been written. While I find in his paintings vast troves of nuanced moral philosophy, his work exudes its own power – evident, plainspoken and appealing. You certainly don’t need to know anything about Goethe, Kant or Schiller to understand and appreciate Brown Lethem’s work. In fact, if you don’t know their work in moral philosophy, I can think of no better introduction than the paintings of Brown Lethem.

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

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