Now on view at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine in Augusta, “Everyday Maine” is a huge exhibition featuring 190 works by 72 photographers. Curated by Bruce Brown, curator emeritus of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the show is a study in diversity and inclusiveness.

The local flamenco dancer Lindsay Bourassa as photographed by Arthur Fink, archival inkjet pigment print.

The venue is a tough one for shows of any size, as some of the rooms are usually used for meetings or classes. But with so many works jammed together salon-style, the effect is one of urgent weight and insistent significance – not gravitas, per se, but at the very least, gravity.

That is not such an easy achievement with photographs dedicated to the workaday, the regular, the normal. What is the normal, after all, if not context itself, background? Yet this cuts to the quick of “Everyday Maine”: What is “normal” in Maine is identifiably different from elsewhere. Identity may be something that can be achieved or performed, but Brown hints that authentic identity doesn’t come in a can.

Even Brendan Bullock’s little boy standing on his head is free from theatrical self-consciousness, despite the performance of the boy in a bathing suit and the stage-like setting of the oh-so-blue changing room bench. Little boys will make a stage out of anything. The little guy’s make-believe (as well as his legitimate accomplishment: I can’t stand on my head) is normal stuff. What makes it Maine is the grittiness of the stage.

The image that defines the show for me is Diane Hudson’s “Porch Talk.” Three buddies sit on a porch, shooting the breeze. With every inch covered in old tools and objects, the house falls somewhere between a work of art and a junk store. The men are chatting away, even as a horse joins the group from the right. A hint to the presence of the horse can be seen in the orange hats and clothing in the image: It must be hunting season, and the orange is a regular way (along with staying close to the house) to keep horses, dogs and themselves safe. Despite the odd specifics, this is clearly their “normal.”

Everywhere, we see workers working, families sharing time, and even dancers dancing. The work pictures comprise a major theme of the show and include some of the strongest pieces. I was particularly impressed by Tonee Harbert’s image of a lumberjack putting his saw to a tree in the backwoods. The wood chips sprayed by his saw play up the soft focus of the black and white image. Energy is a blur, sure, but the idea of the graininess of the print is smartly put in play as well. Several of the most striking and visually interesting pieces are by Dave Wade, particularly his lobstermen. We watch (in high focus black and white) as one tosses the undersized catch (“shorts”) back into Casco Bay. The lobster seems to have launched itself, fully capable of flight and breathing deep with a sea-whistled cry of “Freedom!” Wade presents a lobsterman climbing on his pile of traps from below, a geometrical throwback to titled grainy modernism of early photography (or, say, Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International”), and, in its dynamic tilt, a nod to the towering danger of the hardscrabble profession. The fact that Wade stands out so well in such a large crowd is testament that he is one the best photographers at capturing what it means to be “Maine.”

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Dog sled by Tim Greenway.

With a show this large, the “normal” thing is to save your attention for the works that stand out to you personally. Moreover, remembering the works that bubbled to the top of the vast crowd is itself a type of satisfying personal curating. Some of the works that have lingered in my own memory include Sean Alonzo Harris’s crisply sculpted images of African-American kids playing basketball in an outdoor Portland park. I adore the tenderness – as well as the technical prowess – of Luc Demers’s color print of a squatting child fascinated by the actions of the unseen person (dad?) in the foreground. Tanja Hollander is remarkable for her skills and conceptual chops, but her portrait of photographer Diane Hudson and her late partner, Eddie (who also appears in Hudson’s “Porch Talk”), is a peach point for a Maine portrait. Arthur Fink’s continuing project of shooting dancers appears as a basic reminder of the visual depth of the state’s rich crop of culture professionals. Tim Greenway’s photo of a racing dogsled brilliantly flies on the dogs’ enthusiastic perspective. Ni Rong’s “In America #3 – Trash on Monhegan” portrays the artist – in her typical self-portrait-oriented conceptual approach – facing off with a towering pile of beach-washed flotsam, deconstructed detritus from another reality that scrapes against her delicate but powerfully observant subjectivity. And Susan Porter’s silver gelatin print of two toddlers sprinting through strawberry fields in Cape Elizabeth is a favorite of mine, both for its sweetness and its extraordinary unlikeliness: I have raised a couple of sprinters, but I have never seen such little kids move in concert like that.

“Porch Talk, Harmony, Maine,” by Diane Hudson, 2010, archival digital print.

Brown’s curatorial style with “Everyday Maine,” as with so many of his shows, is expansive. He presents photos by artists who have earned fame next to works by folks whose photos we are likely never to see again. The photographers come from around the state, and their subjects follow no pre-set expectations on Brown’s part.

It’s easy for curators to find works that reinforce their own preconceived ideas and then claim what they have gathered proves that their vision was right all along. Bruce Brown doesn’t work that way. He is not slick, and he has no sense of pretense. He goes everywhere and considers everything. What he does best is look, listen and include. Too many curators are too concerned that any flaw in the work will reflect on them. What Brown sees – and, in turn, presents to us – is work that achieves something. It’s not all beautiful or technically sculpted to perfection. This approach is most challenging to the viewers who think of themselves as sophisticated, since they are being asked to, if you will, separate the wheat from the chaff. Certainly, every work Brown includes has worthy qualities, but he doesn’t give us the simple (read: overdetermined) script we expect from “curators.” We aren’t be told what to see, and that’s the way life should be.

Untitled (cutting wood), by Tonee Harbert, 2014, archival inkjet print on Moenkopikozo paper.

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

[email protected]


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