“A Mind of Winter” is a relatively small show of photographs by Abelardo “Abe” Morell at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. But the impact of the dozen works leaves ocean-sized ripples.

The internationally renowned Morell was born in Cuba and attended Bowdoin College (’71) and Yale University. He taught for many years in Massachusetts, where he still resides.

Morell’s works lie on a continuum between spare winter forest landscapes with an eye to the snowy ground, and an unusually painterly mode of cliché-verre.

Predating photography, cliché-verre is a technique of painting or drawing on a transparent surface, which is then printed. (“Verre” is French for glass and “cliché” is a print matrix cast from moveable type). Morell’s works are made by applying black ink on glass that is then scanned and printed.

Morell’s digitally printed images are presented face-mounted on Lucite and floated from the wall on aluminum boxes. They give the initial impression of being black and white photographs on the cold blue walls of the intimate but soaring gallery. The painterly cliché-verre works come across as far more brushy than most painting. “Vertical Landscape,” for example, resembles what you would expect if Franz Kline had painted abstractions of cascading waterfalls in his signature black and white.

However, Morell’s cliché-verre work is more notable for its energy and motion than any brushy bravado, particularly as it sets off the very still winter scenes.

While it is uniformly successful, Morell’s straightforward photography is varied and supremely nuanced. A pair of shots of the snow-covered floor of the winter forest, for example, frames a doorway to the next gallery. They appear complementary: views downward (no horizon line) so all we see is solid white snow with a few minor intrusions of the forest indicating the sense of place. At the top corner closest to the doorway, each features the bottom sliver of a stand of small trees poking through the snow. These offset each other and hint at the subtle possibility that the horizon line of the scene actually matches the top edge of the image (a fascinating leitmotif of the entire show). The scene on the left only references the forest by the bits that have fallen to the snow-covered forest floor. We don’t see the trees, but only evidence of them: pine cones, lichen and a few needles. The scene on the right, however, references the forest with a different kind of trace: long shadows of tall, bare tree trunks that cross the entire scene. One such subtle shadow bisects the image to very quietly remind us of the absent horizon line. By the work’s title, “Winter Ground with Shadows,” Morell lets us know we’re on the right path.

The exhibition title is the first line of a poem by Wallace Stevens (no, not Robert Frost): “The Snow Man.” And the poem, to a rare extent, opens the doors to what Morell is trying to achieve. “The Snow Man” is a virtual manifesto of Nietzschean “perspectivism” – the view that any commentary or image necessarily stems from a particular perspective, as opposed to universal truth. Morell’s label copy, titles and work all come together on this so that “The Snow Man” feels like the foundation of the show rather than the typical title that appears as an afterthought.

To be clear, the most powerful thing about “A Mind of Winter” is the work. I have seen the show five times, and its visual presence was no less muscular when I hadn’t read a word about it.

“Winter Landscape” is particularly striking. It’s a view towards feet level in the deep snow woods. All we see are the slender trunks of oaks and maples, with a single crashed branch of a maple, a few dead leaves still clinging, lying across our visual path from the right. In fact, there is no path we can follow into the scene: from the center, a trunk curves out to the left and a small twiggy tree points out to the right in a two-roads-diverged gesture. The most incredible thing, however, is a white shape (the snow in these images is pure white – not shades of blue or gray) that barely continues from the center snow up along the curving tree on the left; it almost reaches – but cannot – to a tree on which a barely visible blue and red trail blaze can be found. The colors shift us from seeing in black and white (reinforced by the cliché-verre abstractions) to realizing we are looking at scenes of very little color. Only then, for example, does the lonely Charlie Brown Christmas tree appear as green. This is perspective play on many levels: Color or black and white, linear perspective or the Japanese print-inspired view below the horizon line, virgin snow or a blazed trail, and so on.

Morell’s most pressing perspective question, however, is the issue of positive and negative space. This is echoed by the most mysterious-sounding phrase of Stevens’ poem, included on the gallery wall: “For the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In the pictures, we see both the positive and the negative space (the things and the spaces between them) and it is only from their complementary perspectives that anything is recognizable or legible – just as to see the black of these letters, you need the white of this page.

Morell’s clearest piece about absence and presence is “Tree Branch Pressed in Snow.” It is two images, one above the other like a window. In the top image, a tree branch appears to have been pressed into the snow under a box of some sort. In the lower image, we see the impression left by the branch – the same scene – after it has been removed. It’s an appealing work that comfortably introduces complex but rewarding philosophical ideas about representation, legibility, morality and perspective. If you go through the show and Morell’s content hasn’t come into focus for you, spend some time with this work, particularly if you want to wrap your head around the mixed images that combine landscape and cliché-verre. (I personally stumbled on the reversed negative image “Panorama of Winter Woods” until I spent time with “Tree Branch.”)

An additional component of the exhibition is the piano soundtrack that Morell recorded for the installation. It’s a largely improvised work reminiscent of George Winston’s “December.” The question of improvisation versus composing resembles the difference between Stevens’ “the listener, who listens in the snow” and Frost’s “but I have promises to keep, /And miles to go before I sleep.” Performing a composition is to follow a recipe written previously by someone else. Improvising, on the other hand, combines the performer and the author in a here-and-now moment that can be experienced in real time.

Morell isn’t trying to transport us to winter; instead, he presents us with an impressively successful model for attaining a mind of winter. The idea is that it could be summer, art, sunrise, the woods or anything sufficiently powerful to hold our spirit in place long enough for a self-aware spiritual experience.

There is art that is spiritual and then there is art that examines spirituality. Morell has pulled these together in an ultimately humanist show that celebrates the idea of diverse perspectives on shared experience.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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