“Portrait 22 after Matisse’s ‘Reclining Odalisque,’ ” Dinora Justice Courtesy of artist and Gallery NAGA

Curated by Joanna Fink, director of the Alpha Gallery in Boston, “Contemporary Responses to Modernism: A New England Perspective” at the University of Southern Maine Art Gallery in Gorham features paintings and sculptures by an impressive group of 13 artists with New England ties.

There are a bunch of little things I like about this show. For example, it is hung sparsely and with a light touch: Each work has plenty of room to breathe. The art all appears courtesy of the galleries that represent the artists. This not only is a positive thing for the artists (or their estates, several are no longer living), but it gives the viewer an idea about where to find more information.

It also makes the work more approachable; if you really wanted to buy any of these works, you probably could. What I particularly like about this is the cultural shift it represents. Just a few years ago, there was an arbitrary-seeming wall that kept art dealers from sharing their expertise in most journals and museums. That wall is dissolving. It’s complicated, but museums and journals have conflicts of their own, while the position of the galleries always seemed very clear. So, I think it’s terrific that Fink has worked with USM to produce this exhibition.

As an exhibition open to the public, “Contemporary Responses” barely connects to the topic of Modernism. And that’s a good thing. Any text, article or person claiming to completely address visual Modernism in a thumbnail should be taken with a grain of salt (myself included). Mounted at a teaching institution, the show is an excellent tool for longer, more in-depth conversations about issues, themes and tropes of Modernism. On its own, the work is strong, interesting and appealing; it is an excellent cross-section of professional artists from New England.

“Landscape with Columns,” Kayla Mohammadi Courtesy of Caldbeck Gallery

Kayla Mohammadi’s “Landscape with Columns” makes a direct visual reference to the great Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Columns,” which began as zigzagging plinths that would rise to various levels. Mohammadi weaves these into a surface where positive and negative space are completely intertwined.

Aaron Fink’s “Smoker” makes a direct reference to a famous Max Beckmann self-portrait in a tuxedo. But what looks like awkward frontal flatness in the relationship of the figure to the frame (which is quite unlike the Beckmann) echoes the Modernist idea of the viewer’s physical encounter with paint – fully flat and frontal.

Jim Ritchie’s bronze sculpture “Figure Turning Right” also makes a clear reference to a seminal Modernist masterpiece, Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.” But whereas Boccioni’s Cubo-Futurist work strides directly forward, Ritchie’s figure twists in what is a far more traditional contrapasto pose geared toward activating the form as a sculpture in the round.

“Imago,” Sascha Braunig Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Productions

Rendered in the Surreal style of Rene Magritte, Salvadore Dali or Giorgio de Chirio, Sascha Braunig’s painting “Imago” might be the most exciting work in “Contemporary Responses.” It is debatable whether their theatrically staged works geared toward the unexpected and uncanny weirdness were actually Surrealism or merely something similar. In her statement, Braunig states that she is conflicted in her intentionally feminist work about the role of the male gaze. Yet Braunig rewards the viewer who initially sees the shapes on the central biomorphic form as breasts: Indirectly, we come to see we are looking at a dreamlike female figure that has made an impression of itself in something like gold foil.

No less worthy is a group of excellent paintings, including Ben Aronson’s Ashcan-inspired NYC street scene, David Kapp’s horizonless view of figures flocking to a concert and a pair of Cubist and John Marin-inspired landscapes by Bernard Chaet and Jon Imber, the latter of which flutters to the edge of brushy abstraction.

Probably the best work for class-worthy discussion is Dinora Justice’s “Portrait 22 after Matisse’s ‘Reclining Odalisque’ ’”– an undoubtedly critical response to the Modernist master’s paintings of female figures. What Justice does to clarify her case is treat the surface of the painting as though it were collaged from bits of wallpaper. Collage – an invention of Cubism – allows for Justice to use decorative elements to represent issues such as beauty, painterliness and the association between women and domestic decor. In terms of topic and title, “Portrait 22” is “Contemporary Responses” most conducive object.

If you ever had the grave misfortune of finding yourself in a room with 20 art historians explaining their understanding of Modernism, you would likely hear 20 widely ranging cultural theories. This is frustrating because it can be intimidating or confusing to casual art fans, but keep this in mind: They don’t have a verbalized handle on it either. One of the keys to art is sensibility – feel. You don’t have to be able to parse Beethoven’s music in writing to be able to “get” it. That would be describing it, not feeling it. The same goes for visual art. Like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

I generally start visual Modernism talks by recalling Edouard Manet’s 1862 “Luncheon on the Grass,” which depicts two recognizable guys in suits (portraits), sitting with a naked woman (a nude), with a picnic lunch (a still life) in a stream-side park (landscape) in which a woman is bathing (pastoral). It’s an encyclopedia of genres – which were hierarchically ranked by the French Academy with history paintings at the top – and so it’s none of them. It’s a radical act, an assault on assumptions – particularly institutionalized assumptions. And that is Modernism in a nutshell: Assumption by assumption, Modernists would take down The Man.

While it might be overly succinct, I see this ever-antiestablishment definition as both practical and strategic. And postmodernism? What is more “postmodern” than the “Luncheon on the Grass” or the Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Malevich, or the “readymades” of Duchamp and Rrose Selvay? There is no distinction in my definition.

Maybe you don’t buy this thumbnail version of Modernism. But, at least, accept the notion of cultural progress that the visual arts has always valued. After all, they have a lot to teach us – and since culture is ever evolving, we will always have a lot to learn.

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

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