Monday, December 9, 2013
By Daniel Kany
When you think of venues for fine art in Maine, a few robust images bubble up to the surface: quaint old storefronts in seaside villages, Victorian commercial spaces either in rural homes or on the granite-lined and cobbled streets of Portland, with its sweetly wide-eyed Beaux-Arts aspirations. There are also a few architectural gems such as I.M. Pei's Portland Museum of Art; McKim, Mead and White's Bowdoin Art Museum; and, soon, Colby's new Frederick Fisher-designed space.
The Saco Museum's "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress," part of which occupies a former Pepperell Mill building in Biddeford. Both these photos reflect a trend in Maine: The mill as an art space.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer
The installation by Isabelle Pelissier at Coleman Burke in the Fort Andross Mill.
"IN-FLUX" -- STEEL SCULPTURAL INSTALLATION BY ISABELLE PELISSIER
WHERE: Coleman Burke Gallery, 14 Maine St., Fort Andross Mill, Brunswick
WHEN: Through Aug. 25
COST: Free and open to the public HOURS: Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 a.m.--7:00 p.m. INFO: www.colemanburke.com
"MOVING PANORAMA OF PILGRIM'S PROGRESS"
WHEN: Through Nov. 10
WHERE: Saco Museum, 371 Main St., Saco; and Pepperell Mill, 100 Main St., Biddeford
ADMISSION: $5 for each exhibition, or $7.50 same-day ticket for both exhibitions
INFO: 283-3861 or dylerlibrarysacomuseum.org
More and more, however, art in Maine is being associated with large mill spaces. While this has more to do with trends in real estate development than any motion from the art world, it has a real effect on what we are seeing and how it is presented.
Two new shows in mill spaces -- one mostly in Biddeford's Pepperell Mills and the other in Brunswick's Fort Andross -- present a deliciously poignant set of contrasts between contemporary and 19th century ideas about art, space and public entertainment.
The Saco Museum's exhibition of 800 linear feet of the 1851 moving panorama of "The Pilgrim's Progress" is an extraordinary event. Basically, it's a giant painting that was scrolled on huge spools of canvas in a theater with accompanying narration and music. Such moving panoramas were among the most popular forms of public entertainment, so hundreds of them would be touring the United States and Europe during any given moment of the second half of the 19th century.
Bizarrely, this most popular form has been almost completely expunged from our cultural memory. Yet by chance, of the huge number of panoramas produced, the Saco Museum's "The Pilgrim's Progress" -- which reflects the work of such painting greats as Jasper Francis Cropsey and Frederic Edwin Church -- is one of the most significant remaining examples of them in the world.
I am not sure if it's apt or ironic to see "The Pilgrim's Progress" exhibited not as it was intended to be shown (more like a movie, which had yet to be invented) but as a single continuous canvas flowing along the giant structural beams of a gargantuan open mill space where many thousands of our forebears toiled over fabric looms for countless hours.
"The Pilgrim's Progress" is narrative, Christian, moralistic and melodramatic to the nth degree. And, of course, it was wildly popular during the years it toured America.
It blew me away to see Isabelle Pelissier's "In-Flux" on the same day as "The Pilgrim's Progress."
"In-Flux" is a large-scale, essentially abstract sculpture made of square steel tubing mounted to (and actively engaged with) three of the structural columns in the Coleman Burke Gallery's huge space in the Fort Andross Mill.
The steel strands bend and swoop among and around the huge old wooden beams -- to which they are attached at about 5 feet off the ground by two-part steel mounts. The mount sites are complex and interesting, although it's disappointing that such important elements are held together by cheap-looking long-bolts when everything else has a hand-worked feel. In fact, the aesthetic of the steel is wonderfully satisfying: It was cold-bent and loosely polished by a sander -- most likely to chase away any rust.
While the tubes generally follow gently organic curves, Pelissier's hand in bending them is very clear. This makes it feel like art -- and drawing in particular -- rather than some futuristic machine. Ironically, it also pulls in the viewer to see it from an intimately human distance. This has the fantastic effect of making you feel like you are either beside or even within a whitewater stream. With your head comfortably above the fray between the mill-building columns, it twice offers the sanctuary of breathing space which, in turn, punctuates the dangerously exciting splash-currents at the poles.
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