Ben Shahn, “Grocery Carts,” hand painted lithograph, 25” x 38,” 1957 Images courtesy of the artists

The pivotal importance of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the history of American post-war art cannot be underestimated.

Established in 1946 on the 350-acre farm of portrait artist Willard C. Cummings in rural Madison, its alumni include Lee Botecou, David Driskell, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly and, more recently, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Chitra Ganesh and Nari Ward. Many, like Driskell and Katz, went on to join the illustrious faculty or become influential visiting teachers, a severely abbreviated roster of which includes Teresita Fernandez, Robert Gober, Nancy Graves, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Judith Linhares and Louise Nevelson.

Calvin Tompkins, The New Yorker’s art critic for many years, once wrote, “Skowhegan seems to foster an attitude of risk-taking of all kinds, and this may well be its lasting contribution.” Anyone who doubts this should make a beeline to the Maine Jewish Museum for “Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture” (through June 24), an exhibition curated by multimedia artist (and 1996 alum) Juliet Karelsen.

Juliet Karelsen, “Flowers Bees Love – Poppies: Pedestal Terrarium,” interior, 36″ x 12″ x 12″, 2021

The individuality and varied adventurousness of the work on display attests to the democracy and openness to exploration that is Skowhegan’s ethos. The exhibition showcases painting, sculpture, video, fiber art and ceramics. The sheer diversity illustrates the no-holds-barred approach to personal expression that helped – and still helps – nascent talents find their unique voices, which explode formerly set boundaries in art and move us along the art continuum.

Some of the most powerful work in the show is video, particularly two by Skowhegan faculty member Neil Goldberg. I confess that video previously was not a medium I naturally gravitated toward, mainly because much of it can come off as self-indulgent and, consequently, inscrutable. But lately I find myself fascinated by the way it can capture surprising meaning in the most quotidian human experiences.

Superficially, Goldberg’s “Salad Bar” is nothing but surreptitiously videoed footage of people grazing a Manhattan salad bar. Simple and boring, right? Wrong. There is nothing casual about the way these people contemplate the meal they are assembling. In fact, they devote intense concentration to the task. Some look mystified by the abundance. In several, one senses something primal in their hunger; in others, the anticipated pleasure of digging into their selections. Halfway through, it struck me that the video was less about the mundane instinct to fill our stomachs than it was about seriously questioning ideas around nourishment. What actually nourishes us, after all? Is it just calories and satiation? The multi-sensory experience of eating? Or is it about something deeper – the comforting sense of the universe providing?

Still from “Drag Queen Studio Visit,” Neil Goldberg

In “Drag Queen Studio Visit,” Goldberg manages to upend all kinds of assumptions. Here, he invites drag artist Jackie Beat to comment on a video he filmed of his father breathing onto a mirror. The popular imagination casts drag queens as superficial objects of parody and, worse, derision. This image is shattered when Beat observes that the video feels “humiliating” of Goldberg’s father, a sensitivity toward marginalization (of drag queens and old people alike) that is touchingly empathic.

When Goldberg explains that it was filmed shortly before his father’s death, Beat responds with awe, likening the fog that the elderly man’s breath creates on the glass to “life escaping out of his nose onto a mirror.” It is a profundity we don’t expect from the heavily mascaraed, big-haired, voluptuously hyped Beat. The vulnerability of the observation cuts through the artifice of the drag and pierces the heart. By then, Beat has also abandoned his own struggle to hold up the artifice of his livelihood with flippant humor and sarcastic digs. Goldberg manages to excavate depths that feel utterly human, beautiful and equalizing.

For traditional painting, there are two particularly lovely scenes by Gail Spaien. This artist considers her work “objects of contemplation,” and indeed she essentially creates pleasingly serene vistas for the viewer to look out on. They are more soothing than visually demanding. But in “Serenade” and “Still Life #9,” her use of flattened perspective, color and pattern are especially appealing.

Natasha Mayers, “Redhead Chair,” 36″ x 24″, acrylic on board, 2020

The work of Natasha Mayers, on the other hand, is unapologetically in your face. Mayers is known for her activist subject matter, which excoriates money lenders, corporate greed, militaristic aggression and any number of other societal ills. So, it’s interesting that the three paintings here are almost devoid of political content, save, perhaps, “Pattern.” With its broken cut lines around the figures, this work recalls paper dolls or dress patterns. But one figure is helmeted, evoking riot police or a military uniform. The standout of this trio is “Redhead Chair,” a tour de force of painterly layering and eye-popping color.

Naomi Safran-Hon, “WS: Dreams in Purple,” acrylic, gouache, lace, fabric, cement, and archival inkjet print on canvas, 61″ x 53″, 2017

But world issues are never far away. Haifa, Israel-born artist Naomi Safran-Hon’s “WS: Dreams in Purple” is particularly relevant given the explosive Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently raging in the Gaza Strip. It is basically an archival inkjet print on canvas showing the wall of a bombed-out building. Holes in it reveal bits of lace and fabric underneath, evidence of extinguished domesticity. Safran-Hon pressed wet cement against these materials from the back of the canvas, essentially extruding it through the fibers. The sense is that the extreme heat of the bombing partially liquefied the wall’s cement, and the force of the explosion is blasting it outward. It is as unsettling now, nine years after its creation, as it was then, but notable in its unconventional construction and use of material.

Shadi Harouni, “Last Day of the Bombardments,” edition 1 of 3, Polaroid photo

War – in this case the Arab-Iranian conflict – is also on Shadi Harouni’s mind in “Last Day of the Bombardments,” a deceptively simple work that presents a picture of her family and the work’s title written on the back. The wariness of their expressions leaves it unclear whether the family members feel tentative hope for peace or disbelief in the possibility of attaining it.

Karelsen’s “Pedestal Terrariums: Flowers Bees Love” comment on environmental issues. Peering through a looking glass at the top of the pedestal, we discover lush bouquets inside of cone flowers, buttercups, rugosa roses, bee balm and other flora, all of it constructed from tissue paper, wire, felt, wool, glitter and gold leaf. That they are encased under glass – as well as, perhaps, the fact that they are human-made facsimiles of the real thing – implies their eventual extinction.

Two of the most famous names in the exhibit are Ben Shahn (represented by the hand-colored lithograph “Grocery Carts”) and Alex Katz (with an aquatint of his son called “The Swimmer”). Shahn’s piece eschews his usual left-wing political themes in favor of a whimsical American object. The original artwork was executed in 1957 and called “The Big Push.” The litho is charming and has a childlike, Paul Klee sort of charm. Katz’s work is notable for an uncharacteristic compositional complexity that makes it feel more substantial than many of his flatter, reductive portraits. It looks almost like a large-scale Japanese ukiyo-e print.

Alex Katz, “The Swimmer,” aquatint, 28″ x 36″, 1974

There are other artists here, too, working in various other media: Rachel Frank’s lusciously beaded camouflage fabric, Abby Shahn’s ceramics and ghostly paintings on grounds of rust, Lauren Cohen’s Anni Albers-like “Painted Weaving Series” (she also contributes mournful environmentally themed videos), a mixed-media sculpture by Gina Siepel that references Emma Goldman’s arduous walk from 42nd Street to the Bowery upon her arrival in New York, wire sculpture by Julianne Swartz and paintings by Alex Bradley Cohen and Talia Levitt (as class of 2018, the most recent Skowhegan graduate). All of it is intriguing and conveys the artistic fertility offered by this historic residency program, the effects of which continue to ripple far beyond Maine.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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