Installation by Ellis-Beauregard fellows Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen. Photo by Daniel Kany

The entire main gallery of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art has been transformed into a churning sea of wood. We enter on a boardwalk, either of two paths that intersect at the center of the room. But the boardwalk is not to be trusted. Rather than servicing us – its ostensible human masters – the ends of the walks seem to be in revolt, and have joined the swirling and insurgent sea of gently curved wooden strokes.

The boardwalk is unfinished wood, the standard stuff of steps. The “sea” part of the scene is made by strips of paneling, slender enough to bend and curve. These are held together by tens of thousands of drywall screws. The many thousands of sea wood strips curve and flow as both a compelling sculptural representation of water and drawing in space. The sculpture/drawing distinction might not sound important, but after a few minutes it becomes undeniable. The space of the installation represents some of the best sculpture presented in Maine in the past year. But the flow and form of the wooden strips represent the real-time engineering of the lines and physics of the scene – and so the installation becomes very likely the most ambitious and successful drawing project seen in the region in quite some time.

Shoshannah White “Coal and Glacier Water Landscape, Five Panel” 2017/2019 Image courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

You don’t have to be a hyperbolic paraboloid or calculus nerd (like some of us, not naming names) to get this. We all have a sense for natural structures, and the team of Wade Kavanaugh (Bethel) and Stephen B. Nguyen (Portland) undoubtedly created the piece through feel rather than calculation. In other words, it’s brilliant, but it’s about as Baroque as can be: It’s experiential rather than theoretical. This also plays to the sense of drawing that drives the installation. To some extent, however stiltedly, we can all draw. That we can so easily follow the flow of the connected wood slats helps the viewer unpack the physical installation like a drawing. Such clarity helps us move in both directions: We can follow the physical actions of the artists and their process of composing. Witnessing the traces of the composition with such clarity opens the door to the artists’ intentions. Quite simply, we are encouraged to feel like we can follow Kavanaugh and Nguyen. For most viewers, this comes as a pleasant connection to the artists and their intentions.

This installation represents the inaugural exhibition of Ellis-Beauregard Foundation fellows. Kavanaugh and Nguyen were selected as the first recipients of the fellowship by Jeffrey Peabody, director of Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City, and Alison de Lima Greene, the Isabel Brown Wilson curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

“Inhalation XXXVIII” Photo courtesy of John Paul Caponigro

Visually, the installation plays a set of successful games. It uses the high-up windows of the CMCA’s signature northlight roof to treat the space like a fishbowl. The specific pair of paths that intersect and offer only a single workable Boolean option (either/or switches in computing) and the two paths that dissolve into the sea can be seen as “you lose” outcomes in a video game. Or instead of playing, they could be pressing a metaphor about climate change (which, in the context of “Melt Down” in the front three galleries, is probably the most obvious path). But there are far more possibilities: This could be a meditation on artistic observation of the environment. It smacks of Winslow Homer and the Romantic notion of the ocean observer’s heroic aloneness. Make no doubt about it: There is a sense of memento mori (a reminder of your own mortality – an art history thing ensconced in Christian symbolism) to the wildly churning surf, which, at the first entrance, rolls over you (quite literally) in the shape of a tidal wave. Kavanaugh and Nguyen are certainly playful, but it’s rather up to you to take this as deadly serious or simply fun. Personally, I laughed and loved every second I spent in there.

Peter Ralston “Arctic Bay, Atlantic Salmon,” 2016 Peter Ralston

CMCA’s other major show is “Melt Down,” a photography-oriented show organized by CMCA curator emeritus Bruce Brown. “Melt Down” focuses on images of the rapidly changing regions of the Earth’s sometimes-erstwhile icy arctic areas. While many curators take an idea and then illustrate it to prove their own hypothesis, that is not the case with Brown, the consummate audience member of regional art. When we see this type of show curated by Brown (who is rather allergic to writing and/or theorizing about the content of what he gathers visually), it’s fair to assume that from the works by thousands of artists whose output he has seen, certain ideas bubbled into visual clarity. The environmental concern (and outright alarm) in “Melt Down” is undoubtedly the echo of what Brown found pervasive among the works of the regional artists. This isn’t like, say, picking a couple of the very, very few scientists who deny climate change just to pander to your base. This is a whole different realm: Brown is presenting actual cultural change on a broad scale in which he finds examples – and actual scientific evidence – of critical change on a global scale.

Portland photographer Peter Ralston, for example, is a storyteller. We see a picture of an Inuit man with his two daughters and a giant salmon hanging from his hand. Good for him, we think: That’s a tasty thing. But Ralston immediately takes his story to fact: The folks live on Baffin Island (go straight north from Portland for 2,000-plus miles) and so, for them, this is a historical moment: “Indeed,” Ralston writes, “salmon had never been seen here before … ever.”

DM Whitman’s grid of images of the Arctic are captured via satellite: again, real data. To feed the metaphorical import of her project, she leaves a few of her salt-paper images unsealed so they will fade over time during the installation. Like Ralston, she includes specific mapping coordinates. It’s smart, beautiful, compelling and, unfortunately, disturbing. And that could be said of virtually all of the work in “Melt Down.” It’s uncanny how such dark data can come across as quite the opposite of cynical, but it is: It’s the new form of artistic Realism, plain and simple. Jean-Francois Millet once showed us the plight of the poor gleaners, and we can’t unsee the Depression-era images of desperate Americans by artists like Dorothea Lange.

This connection is far closer than it might seem. Shoshannah White, for example, gives us images of melting arctic ice with coal dust. White’s works are the most elegant installed in CMCA’s long back gallery, the visual gathering point that director Suzette McAvoy has always made look great. White’s tall, slender panels are dark and hung in a sleek line; it’s what you would expect to see at MoMA.

At first, this aesthetic elegance might seem out of place. But consider how Lange and her fellow photographers treated the suffering families from their Depression-era photography. We see the chaotic wrong inflicted on them precisely because we can see the ever-organized and upright humanity of these people. Lange’s dark-haired mother is clothed in rags, holding her two turning-away children. But she is firm, impressive and ever-present despite the bite of her downturned situation. She suffers, but she inspires.

That is where we must be. We see this throughout Brown’s show. We need to be better than the deniers. Brown and his artists remind us that we all need to be the adults in the room, upright and ever-present.

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

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