August 11, 2013

At UNE, a mountain of a show


As far as I am concerned, Maine landscape painting was truly born when Frederic Church made his first scouting trip to Katahdin in 1852.

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"Bell Pond," by Susan Siegel

Courtesy photo

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"Sleeping Giant," by Michael Boardman

Courtesy photo

Additional Photos Below


"A MOUNTAIN RISES: THE ART OF KATAHDIN" -- An exhibition of contemporary and historic art and documents curated by "Art of Katahdin" author David Little and UNE professor Stephen Alpert

WHERE: University of New England Art Gallery, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland

WHEN: Through Oct. 27

HOURS: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, until 7 p.m. Thursday or by appointment

INFO: 221-4499;

BOOK PANEL: At 5 p.m. Aug. 28, Little will discuss the exhibition and his book, and John Neff and Howard Whitcomb will discuss their new book, "Baxter State Park and Katahdin, Images of America."

ARTIST PANEL: At 5 p.m. Oct. 2, a panel discussion by artists in "A Mountain Rises" will be held at the gallery.

Something clicked in Church. At Katahdin, he found the very heart of the American wilderness. Church became a superstar with his exotic and picturesque landscapes, and lived mainly at his New York estate. But for the rest of his life, he was drawn to his 180 acres near Maine's heart of darkness: Katahdin.

Just as we (wrongly) overlook Church in the shadow of America's arguably greatest artist, Winslow Homer, it's now hard to see Maine landscape behind the coastal schools of painting to whom Maine is the ocean's edge, with its seductively siren-sung songs of the sea.

For Church's America, which was still thick with a wild-edged frontier, the horizon was no longer the ocean blue but the mysterious landscape of manifest destiny.

At some point, however, we changed our gaze from three mountains in a wood to the three islands in a bay.

Co-curators David Little's and Stephen Halpert's "A Mountain Rises: The Art of Katahdin" at the University of New England in Portland is a quirky and diverse exhibition of about 100 works relating to the history of the visual culture of the mountain based on Little's new book, "Art of Katahdin."

The exhibition reveals a great deal about the spiritual and cultural paths of Maine landscape painting.

It would have been simple enough to gather a few dozen of the most appealing images by famous artists who have taken on Maine's highest mountain, but this is not that show. Instead, "A Mountain Rises" is about the lure of Katahdin and its inexplicable power over our imaginations.

The exhibition announces Little's book, but the eclectic show has its own personality and strength of vision.

Unlike standing at the edge of the sea or staring into the night sky, Katahdin casts its spell -- its aura -- with an indomitable sense of place.

We see it in Sanford Gifford's gorgeous 1877 oil, and we see in Jean McLean's kitschy edition of "Katahdin Country" -- with three actual tied fishing flies included. It's this kind of daring leap to bind the vernacular to rarified high culture that makes this a truly insightful exhibition. This trickle-down cultural motion is the mechanism of legend.

"A Mountain Rises" makes a persuasive case that the spiritualized culture of Katahdin creates pilgrims. It's a strange goal for an art show, but, oddly, it is an American thing. This is no Haj -- it's the call of the New World.

This appears most clearly to me in work by artists I know. Caren-Marie Michel's works, for example, are usually geared towards painterly qualities rather than description. But her images of Katahdin are about a sense of place. And while Michael Boardman (who has been artist-in-residence at Baxter) usually bases his watercolors on observational talent, his Katahdin works take on a spiritual power.

Boardman's "Cloud Gatherer" seems to show the mountain devouring a cloud rather than being encompassed by it, and his "Sleeping Giant" might be the most strangely enigmatic work in the show -- it shows a moose lying on the forest floor. It could be asleep or dead, but somehow, it is a dream image with extraordinary -- even lethal -- potential. It could be a metaphor for the mountain or its spirit, Pamola.

Pamola is the sphinx-like god of thunder and cold weather who was both revered and feared by the Abenakis. Out of respect for the vengeful Pamola, climbing Katahdin was taboo.

In other words, Katahdin is, and has always been, a fearsome and hallowed ground.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sam Cady's shaped canvas of Knife's Edge over Chimney Pond

Courtesy photo

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A view of the mountain by James Fitzgerald.

Courtesy photo

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"Heading to Baxter," by Caren-Marie Michel

Jay York photo

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