The Center for Maine Contemporary Art has taken another step forward with a new set of shows. Sam Cady’s shaped-canvas paintings assert themselves on the soaring central gallery walls. David Driskell’s framed prints are potent and visually dense to an usual degree. And Mark Wethli’s real-scale Piper Cub is a conceptual challenge: Is it a model, a sculpture, an installation, a conceptualist piece or something else?

From an installation perspective, Wethli’s wooden-framed plane completes the trio. While Driskell’s masterful framed prints are presented traditionally, and Cady’s work shifts between shapes with scenes on them and paintings in the shape of the objects they represent, Wethli’s is a singular object installed in the center of the CMCA’s slickest gallery space.

While it’s easy to describe Wethli’s plane as a sculptural object in the gallery space, the work itself is not that simple. Whether you see Wethli’s piece as conceptual art lies in its relationship to the gallery space. This is also the work’s flaw: The artist leaves it to the viewer to determine the art status of the plane-like object. Some people won’t stitch together enough of an argument to see it as art, while others simply won’t have the conceptual inclination. Initially, I was surprised by the number of people who made comments to me about this work – inevitably with a question along the lines of “How is that supposed to be art?” What makes the question suspect, however, is that each person who put it to me was an artist. My guess is that the general public will be more accepting of the “Piper Cub’s” status as art when they see it framed, if you will, by the gallery setting.

Artists have their own standards and Wethli’s work rubs up against several boundaries. Its polished hand-crafted wood aesthetic is more carpentry-as-craft than contemporary art. It’s unclear if the work is intended to be an airplane or a representation of a plane. Finally, it’s a model airplane, but models are supposed to be made on a manageable scale in order for the model- maker to learn about the structures and forms of the modeled object. Strange things happen when a map becomes the same scale as the terrain it purports to map or a we remember things at the same pace we experienced them in the first place – at that point, we don’t call it remembering but rather “re-living” an experience.

“Gull View Sand and Little Sand Low Tide,” by Sam Cady.

If you follow Wethli’s work into the realm of memory, it will inevitably provide a conceptual experience. While Wethli’s exhibition text spells this out, the idea of the model is sufficient here as long as realist representation isn’t conflated with the thing itself. With paintings – like Cady’s – the idea is that you’re looking not at a place or a thing but at a representation of that place or thing. If it’s a thing we can label, such as a boat, then it is recognized as something already know. To help explain the Piper Cub (a very popular small plane built between 1937 and 1947), Wethli mentions Rene Magritte’s seminal 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images” which features a sign-painter’s cartoony representation of a man’s pipe with the words, in French, “This is not a pipe.” It’s a startling phrase. Of course it’s a pipe. Or, conversely, of course it’s not a pipe: It’s a representation of a pipe. This is the problem with words or images – they are virtually never the things they purport to be. Wethli’s wit has wings: This is not a Piper Cub.

“Balsa Model Plane Under Construction, Fuselage,” by Sam Cady.

Wethli’s piece, however, is not a simple joke. It weaves personal nostalgia (Wethli’s inspiration was his aircraft-fixing father who restored a Piper Cub 50 years before helping the artist build this) with kid logic (what if?), craft, conceptualism, process and Magritte-style semiotic surrealism. In the end, some will find it a brilliant and sweet piece, some will see it immediately as a extension of Wethli’s old habits of high focus realism, but it will leave some viewers at a loss. It’s not a Piper Cub. It’s also not a sculpture, a model, an installation, craft or anything easy to encapsulate with a ready label.

Driskell’s prints are superb. They are rich and complex, but lively and comfortably loose. However, the didactic presentation of single matrices (woodblocks, etc) rather misrepresents the exacting complexity of the final prints. Driskell may start with a single hand-colored pull of the hand-carved matrix, but the final prints are made typically from at least a dozen screens and sometimes many more. Driskell’s imagery reaches out broadly to his strongest cultural connections: Western – Christian – art history, African diaspora imagery and the Maine landscape. The final prints blend Driskell’s myriad sensibilities. They are calm, strong and spiritual.

“Brown Venus,” by David Driskell.

Cady’s work greets visitors with a campy smile – a large-scale precisely shaped and painted trailer home, pale pink and beige. Deep within the show is an extraordinary connection to Wethli’s work: a balsa model plane fuselage. This connection serves Cady particularly well since it awakens the conceptual possibilities of his work. These paintings aren’t just shaped canvases, they are shapes on the wall – the weirdness of which is underscored by the lack of shadows on the shapes in the show’s handsome (though in this sense very flawed) catalog. It’s a slick graphic solution to whitewash the shadows, but it empties the very soul of Cady’s work. You can’t really see the actual paintings without the projected shadows on the objects’ lively edges.

The shadows do great things with objects like a seagull tethered by its shadow to the spatially vague but very real white wall. A particularly tall and slender form – a sliver of an elevated highway seen from below – like half a teardrop is a fine shape, but its night-lit shadow renders it gorgeously elegant. Particularly witty are Cady’s islands – slivers of land with brushy stands of trees. They use the white walls like a vision poking through thick morning fog. Cady’s works reach up the soaring walls with gymnastic grace, but they also hold the ground with playful wit: A spidery fishing pole with its bit-red flag waits for a tug and a green pillow back beckons snarkily. This flat shaped-canvas pillow is free-standing away from the wall – a neurotic curator’s nightmare. It’s hilarious.

“Construction Trailer, Canal Street,” by Sam Cady.

It is too easy to miss how Cady’s unwavering colors and even application of paint serve his works, the most successful of which appear as shapes rather than forms. And these shapes often act like they were cut out of a larger representation and collaged onto the wall itself. Paintings have always had bifurcated logic: part flat painting surface and part spatial illusion. Instead of packing the form into the shape as happens on the canvas, Cady unpacks the form from the shape, inverting the primacy of the shape. It’s an exciting effect, and it is not a trivial thing to make or to experience. The wit, kitsch and playfulness of Cady’s subjects lowers the barrier in a way that has an almost opposite effect of Wethli’s perplexing sense of literalism. (Think Alex Katz with a sense of humor, which is itself a funny thought!) You get so much front-end fun with Cady’s paintings that you don’t feel the need to look further. But if you do, they only get better.

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

[email protected]

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