AUGUSTA — When he finished his anti-war masterpiece “Guernica” in 1937, Pablo Picasso said, “Art is not meant to decorate rooms. It is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

Leonard Meiselman, a painter from Wiscasset, quotes Picasso when he speaks of “America Now … A Dialogue,” a group exhibition of Maine artists about a country divided and fighting itself. It’s on view at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta and offers a timely, powerful survey of Maine painters and photographers responding to political and social unrest.

“One might say that Picasso found his artistic identity protesting the brutality of war with his art,” Meiselman said at the exhibition’s opening. “One might say that numerous artists exhibiting in ‘America Now’ found themselves raising a camera or paintbrush in defense of social justice.”

The exhibition is full of images that capture and comment on America’s anxiety sown by divisions across race, class, gender and politics. “America Now” reflects that anger and angst, while providing moments of empathy and humanity that connect people and offer hope for bridging the divides. In a world filled with contention, where respectful dialogue is elusive, “America Now” offers an opportunity for conversation.

“Requiem,” by Leonard Meiselman. Photos courtesy of Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine

“As artists, we can document and provide vision and voice, and nuance, to the really difficult, almost unspeakable things we are experiencing in order to facilitate a conversation,” said Falmouth photographer Joanne Arnold.

One of Arnold’s photographs in the exhibition encapsulates the tension of the times, and the confusion. She took the picture on the Saturday before the election last November when, while driving through town, she happened on a protester dressed as Santa Claus and wearing a Donald Trump clown mask. “I didn’t know if he was for Trump or against Trump,” Arnold said. She stopped the car and watched as he joined a group of Trump protesters who engaged Trump supporters in a shouting match that almost became a street fight.

Afterward, Arnold began talking to the man and took a photo as he pulled the Trump mask from his face, revealing a contemplative expression. We don’t see his eyes, but his turned-down mouth and downcast face tell us how he feels. Arnold was struck by the sad honesty of his expression and felt empathy on a level much deeper than politics and shouted slogans.

“The whole world seems to be operating on a level of masks these days, and here was this guy peeling his off. It was very provocative. I could see the man beneath the mask,” she said.

David Greenham, program director at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, said Arnold’s black-and-white photo captures the confusion that many people are experiencing. There’s a dichotomy between the passion of the protester and his self-doubts and trepidation, all revealed in Arnold’s image. “There is solitude in that picture that we are all sort of facing, where you stand up for or against something, but you are not 100 percent sure whether you’re making a calculated choice or whether you are making a personal choice or whether you are making an emotional choice,” Greenham said. “There is so much gray in all of this.”

“Protester,” by Joanne Arnold, captured an anti-Trump protester during a rally last November.

The theme of masking and unmasking percolates across “America Now.” Meiselman is showing three portraits, all large-scale oil paintings, 5 feet tall and more than 3 feet wide. One is a self-portrait, “I Am an American,” that he labored over for months, working and reworking the eyes, which turned out dark and tired and streaked with blood, sweat and tears in black. In the portrait, a rigid line of division casts the artist’s face in half, splitting him from the top of his head, across the bridge of his glasses, between his eyes and down past his nose and mouth. One side of the portrait is accented with drips of red, white and blue paint.

Another portrait shows a man with closed eyes, deathlike, masked behind the suggestion of an American flag opaquely draped over his face. Meiselman calls this painting “Requiem,” but could have titled it “American Death Mask.” The third portrait, the title piece of the exhibition, combines elements of the other two: a noseless, mouthless face, eyes wide open, split down the middle and streaked with an American flag.

Meiselman’s hard portraits contrast with Alan Magee’s delicate woven tapestry, “Trauerarbeit II.” Magee presents an egg-like human head, soft white and set against a black background. The eyes and mouth are closed, as if in tender sleep. In his artist statement, Magee asks, “Would you want to live without tenderness? It’s a part of the essence of communicating. We’re all in this together.”

Meiselman pitched the idea of the exhibition to Greenham in November, after the presidential election. He wanted an outlet for his own work, which was becoming more politically and socially inspired, and he knew many other artists who were exploring similar themes. He asked Bruce Brown, curator emeritus of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, for his assistance in pulling the show together.

ARTISTS RESPOND

Robert Shetterly’s portrait of whistleblower Edward Snowden is from the artist’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series.

They recruited some of Maine’s best-known political artists, asking for their latest work in response to the election and the unrest that followed. Nearly all of the work is new.

Robert Shetterly is showing two portraits from his ongoing “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series, the artist and social pioneer Lily Yeh and whistleblower Edward Snowden. Abby Shahn fills most of a wall with her 121/2-foot painted mural, “Stumpage,” the name forestry people give to a plot of woods. Shahn made the painting with gestural sweeps of black and brown in response “to the rather brutal cutting of a piece of woods in which I had spent many hours over many years.” It’s jarring.

“Pyramid Scheme” by Natasha Mayers shows a triangle of recurring headless Trump-like men, stacked in rows on top of each other to form a pyramid, with the legs of one row planted on the shoulders of the men below. They’re dressed in blue suits and red ties that hang to their bellies. In “Chairs, All Alone,” she places a solitary Trump among rows of empty chairs.

Brown, whose specialty is photography, sought work from photographers documenting Maine’s opioid crisis, the LGBT community and the waterfront of Portland. Arnold is among a photography roster that includes Jack Montgomery, Derek Jackson, David Wade, Nick Gervin, Hans Nielsen and others.

 

The exhibition’s organizers asked some of Maine’s best-known political artists for their latest work commenting on the current scene. Natasha Mayers’ response included “Pyramid Scheme.” Photo courtesy of Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine

Collectively, the artists cover the issues of the day, Greenham said, and do so in an intimate way by bearing witness and encouraging conversation and personal accountability.

“Sitting by and waiting for someone else to do it isn’t going to work,” Greenham said. “We are all contributing to the conditions that allow homelessness to grow and for more people to fall through whatever safety nets there are, for people to be struggling with health care, jobs, security, mental health. In the long run, the more we can bring light to all of these issues and all of these needs, the more it will be clear that there is no one solution, no one party, no one organization and no one individual that is going to bring about the change that moves us all forward.”

Brown enjoyed working on “America Now” because of its urgency and edginess. With so much of the work created for the exhibition, “America Now” is a direct and nearly immediate response to the election and the tumult that followed.

“This exhibition says to me that artists can be right at the forefront in terms of addressing the times in which we live,” Brown said. “I think that probably has been true through much of history, but artists are not just sitting in their studios and being fully absorbed within four walls. They are adding another aesthetic – a visual aesthetic – as a way to think about these issues.”