March 12, 2010

Tillman Crane: master of his craft

— With rare exceptions, the reviews that have appeared in this column have been of shows in progress. They have been up and running on gallery walls. Still, I can't let ''Odin Stone,'' a recent show at the Addison Woolley Gallery, pass without comment.

An exhibition of beautiful photographs by Tillman Crane, it closed at the end of November. Crane, an acclaimed large-format photographer, exhibited images of the Orkney Islands of Scotland that touched my heart. They were made in the course of six visits to the archipelago, a region so battered by climate and history that it seemed inaccessible to me.

Crane's photographs, although expository and affectionate, add to the uneasy wonder and remoteness of the place. The megalithic circles of stones -- the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness -- a thousand years older than Stonehenge, preside over their spaces without account or attempt at justification. In Crane's work, their possession is eternal.

There was more to the show than a presentation of the Neolithic. The photographer traced the millennia of the Orkneys' physical history to the destruction in 1814 of a fabled monolith, the Odin Stone, and then on to the present. The soft richness of his images and the velvet of his platinum printing are the achievement of a classical ideal.

And now a shopping hint: the 47 photographs that made up the Addison Woolley Show are available in ''Odin Stone,'' a book whose typographic distinction and immaculate plates are of an order that is almost as rare the stones themselves. It is superb as an object as well as a vehicle. It is published by Sterling & Hurst Editions and is available from the photographer (

I have rarely offered shopping advice, but I know a remarkable achievement when I see one.


Tom Hall's small reductivist monoprints (a variant, I believe, of monotypes) are on view at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery on High Street. Some depart from his established use of black and white to include evanescent passages of color. In them, asceticism and blunt austerity yield to colors that are taking their departure. They endow the work with a sense of melancholy and even regret. To use such tiny images to ferry elegiac moments is notable.

The work in black and white tends to be dark and brooding and occupied by trees in a variety of congregations -- glades, rows, thick forest -- and carry such home-like titles as ''Quaker Ridge,'' ''Morse Mountain'' and ''Audubon Trees.'' One, ''Greenville,'' is just 1½ by 1½ inches, and is a masterpiece.

I also note Paul Plante's 4-by-4-inch oil stick drawings. Father Plante anomalously is a fixture, and his drawings are perhaps the most widely known -- and most quickly recognized -- work by a contemporary Maine artist. The show at the Fitzpatrick has Plante's anticipated images of eyes of birds, but it also includes his meditations on the features of plums made in years gone by. They are now rare fellows of wry content. Go see them.


Also go see ''Out There: The Mediated Landscape'' at the Maine College of Art's Institute of Contemporary Art. It comprises work by four faculty members -- Christina Bechstein, Philip Brou, George LaRou and Gail Spaien. The announcement of the event describes it as traversing landscapes that are public, introspective, invented and historically re-imagined to tell the story of four people making meaning in a changing world.

That is a complex proposal, but I think I understand it. Whether or not the artists have found meaning in a changing world I cannot say, but I can assure you that ''Out There'' is a strongly realized and provocative event. Because it is a museum show as opposed to a gallery show, it is not encumbered by commercial considerations and thus is able to have elements of fantasy, lift and impermanence that are not marketable and unique to it.

Spaien's ''Fall Garden, Garden Archive Project 5, 2008'' is warmly appealing. It includes amarylli in Plexiglas boxes as an order in themselves; it includes the same material in a more complex order positioned on a Plexiglas-topped steel stand.

Other components are a series of wall-hung Plexiglas boxes filled with dried botanic matter and a file of pressed flowers. Finally, there is an array of gouache-embellished graphite drawings that suggest pages from a work-stained notebook of a former-day naturalist. It embraces representations of not-quite existent plants and not-quite legible notations about them.

The drawings, which are exquisite, could be an exhibition in themselves. They conjure up images of an aristocratic English amateur botanist fussing around in his greenhouse. The contrast between his faux science and the actual world is sweet.

Brou's ''Mission Control'' -- tiny oval portraits of his high school chums spinning around in a satellite-like enclosure -- is fascinating.

LaRou's ''The Road to Dam Nation'' is a troop of prints executed in digital color that is a treat of sequence and consequence. You have to see them to pick up on this, but by combining images of beavers, chain saws, hunting, bullets in the prints, and assisting them with video statements, he makes a powerful -- if comic -- commentary of our stewardship of the planet.

Finally, Bechstein's ''One Day'' architectural composition of 23,404 pulp produce containers (the equivalent of the number of people who live on the Portland peninsula) is a graphic encounter with waste and reusability.


Alice Spencer's ''Fabricating Time'' at the Art Gallery at the University of New England's Westbrook campus presents an interplay between the formal generosity of her painting and the textiles she collects. The subject of the artist as a collector is an old and fascinating one. Historically, artists have collected; how could it have been otherwise?

And as collectors, they have often led the way. Reaching into areas that the affluent have overlooked, they have enlarged our aesthetic boundaries and introduced us to alien cultures, all to our advantage. An artist's name in the provenance of a work often adds significantly to its value. If Andre Derain or Maurice de Vlaminck owned a certain African tribal carving, it's worth more than if they didn't.

I approached the Spencer show with thoughts about collecting. Spencer has an eye that encompasses a woman's blouse from the indigenous weavers of Guatemala, a woman's robe with a beautiful paint-like surface from Uzbekistan, a batik breast wrapper from Java or a tent panel from Kazakhstan. It also extends to an exceptionally nice indigo cotton wrapper from Mali and a felted floor covering from Mongolia.

They have been gathered on a personal curatorial basis -- on their visual and technical appeal -- and not pressed by the allure of the art market. Thus, the collection is reflective of the eye of the collector and therein lies its fascination. It serves as an extension of the artist.

To what degree the collecting influenced Spencer's rich painting and vice versa, I cannot say. I suppose that there is something of each involved, but in any event, the emotional correspondence between them is fascinating. The artist's ''Robe'' series is complex, daring and well-resolved. Her ''Shirt #1'' is a memorable work of art.

Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 43 years. He can be contacted at:

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