October 9, 2011

In the Arts: De Sinety's Poilley photographs strike a delicate balance


One of the few perks that go with writing this column is an occasional pre-publication catalog. An early arrival can set the tone for an ensuing show. It can suggest things to look for and spare the reading of wall texts. (Extensive wall texts account for more reduction of my gallery energy than the art itself.)

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"Roche Gaudin Farm – Haystack,” 1974, by Madeleine de Sinety

Courtesy Portland Museum of Art

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“Humble Lineage,” mixed media by John Sideli

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WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress St., 775-6148

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; until 9 p.m. Friday

CLOSES: Dec. 18


WHERE: Atrium Art Gallery, University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn College, 51 Westminster St., Lewiston, 753-6500

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

CLOSES: Nov. 3


WHERE: Gleason Fine Art, 31 Townsend Ave., Boothbay Harbor. 633-6849

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

CLOSES: Oct. 29

This is a lead-in for the Madeleine de Sinety exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. I had heard de Sinety's name over the years and knew that she was a photographer, but couldn't connect her with any particular image.

Then, one day, the show's catalog appeared, and all that changed.

It wasn't quite a revelation, but the intensity of much of the work in it lifted de Sinety into the realm of serious attention. Its photographs of a village in Brittany struck me as an evocation of a form of communal life that is in such delicate balance as to make the images wistful.

As to the show itself, there are portraits of people in it that will make your heart ache. It is the placing of those people into the long afternoon shadows of a society about to become more legend than fact that is the artist's achievement.

She recorded the visual smell of a history on the edge of change. And she did it without coyness, without the antiseptic eye of an anthropologist and without undue sentimentality.

Photographing an isolated farm village in Brittany, France, over a period of 21 years is going to generate deep affection, but preventing that from becoming sticky -- especially when the subject appears so willing -- takes a surgical eye. There are enough images in this large show to demonstrate that eye. There is sympathy, but it does not intrude on de Sinety's sense of the iconic. She knows what held that village together.

The Portland show is divided into four sections: Poilley, the small town in Brittany, in the years 1972 through 1993; Poilley in the year 2001; Uganda, 1998-2000; and Maine, 1985-1995.

De Sinety lived in Poilley for eight years, became an unremarked fixture and photographed with evident affection and gratitude. The community opened itself to her (she is a native of France), and the resulting images are documents obtained through the eye of an artist.

The intention was, for the most part, to make a record, but this does not eliminate considerations of harmony, tension and other ingredients of the fine arts.

Comparing the images achieved between 1972 and 1993 with those made during the return in 2001, the former seem more conceptual, more determined to capture the iconic moment, more formal. There is lunch under the apple trees, Christine and Collette's First Communion, the slaughtering of a pig, haying, a family supper and a wake. The execution in each case is arresting, although a bit anticipated.

The 2001 images from Poilley are looser and more animated, based more on availability than the cycle of the day or of the year. "Sunday Morning Poilley" -- two older men (twins?) going to church, Catherine and Christelle on the shore at low tide and a gaggle of geese waiting to intimidate the postman. It is less a freezing of moments than of just happening to be passing by.

To the extent that the Portland show is a full survey of the artist's work, Poilley is de Sinety's prime achievement to date, a magnificent entity in itself.

I should add that I have been talking about classic black-and-white photographs. They, of course, add an archival flavor to the event.

There are a few images in color, but their tonality seems fugitive and deprived of the saturations to which we are accustomed. I find them evocative of old technology and thus charming, but Poilley in this event comes largely in black and white, and will capture your heart.

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