Justine Kablack works on lettering for the exhibit “The Shape of Things” by David Row at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

ROCKLAND — David Row is a fan of architecture and appreciates straight lines and order. As a painter, though, he has little desire to make paintings in rectangular shapes that hang neatly on walls.

“I wanted the paintings not to be a rectangle in a space that is also a rectangle, like Russian dolls. I wanted to get out of that. I wanted the paintings to float by themselves. By giving up the rectangle, that was a way for that to happen,” he said.

Row, who was born in Portland and splits his time between his home and studio in New York and a home and studio on Cushing Island in Casco Bay, is showing his irregularly shaped abstract paintings in the aptly titled exhibition, “The Shape of Things,” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. It is the first major exhibition of his work in his native state, an occurrence that makes Row, 71, happy and humbled.

“It’s really emotional for me,” he said during an interview as he was hanging the exhibition. “The Portland Museum owns some of my stuff and shows it occasionally, and that is really the only larger exposure I have had in Maine. So to do a show here” – he paused and tapped his chest with hand – “it just feels so right.”

The exhibition was supposed to happen a year ago, as part of CMCA’s celebration of Maine artists during the bicentennial. The pandemic scrambled those plans and pushed Row’s exhibition off until now. Suzette McAvoy, CMCA’s former executive director, curated the exhibition.

David Row exhibit, “The Shape of Things,” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

She saw his paintings hanging at the Loretta Howard Gallery in New York in 2014, at a time when she was envisioning how she would fill the new CMCA building when it opened two years later, with its high ceilings, big walls and natural light. Row’s art was exactly what she had in mind.

“I remember walking in and being blown over by the impact of these pieces,” McAvoy said. “I thought the scale of this work would be fantastic in the new CMCA gallery. For once, there was a space that could accommodate these paintings. Part of David’s not having a show here was the sense of not having the exhibition space that could really hold paintings of this scale.”

Row paints on canvas and wood, as well as on aluminum honey-combed, resin-filled panels, which are much lighter than traditional materials. Some of his paintings are 12-feet wide.

“As I have gotten older, I can’t move them around as easily I used to,” he said, explaining his transition to light-weight aluminum panels.

He began exploring what he calls eccentric shapes a decade ago. He had a serious back operation and had to stop painting for a year. During that time, he began working with a glass artist to design cast glass sculptures with eccentric shapes and the nuance and possibilities of solid colors – only the colors were never solid with the cast glass. That revelation led to a new direction in Row’s painting, with odd shapes in various colors and shades. His painting titled “Green” is certainly green, “but it’s a whole lot of greens,” he said.

Edge detail of “Green Piece,” right, and “Thingamajig,” left, by David Row, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Many people, including McAvoy, see and feel the ocean in Row’s painting. A sailor, McAvoy said she felt a sense of movement – the kind she feels when she is on her boat – when she saw Row’s work for the first time in New York.

“There was something about them that reminded me of being at sea. It’s like they are floating and moving, and they are just so dimensional,” she said.

It’s a common reaction, but the effect wasn’t necessarily intentional as much as a natural evolution of doing what felt right, Row said.

“I had a show early on with these eccentric-shaped paintings and this Jamaican guy came up and said to me, ‘Well, I can see you spend a lot of time on the water.’ And I thought, wow, he can see that,” Row said. “I love the idea that things get into your work – that you digest things in the real world and they come out in the work. They become part of the process.”

Row does indeed spend a lot of time on the water. His ancestors are from the Down East town of Perry, and he comes from a family of sailors. He motors around Casco Bay in a 17-foot power boat. The ocean and all that comes with it are part of his life and part of his orientation in the world. It makes sense they are part of his art, even if he expresses them in abstract ways.

He spends about five months of the year on Cushing Island, where his family also has roots, and toys with the idea of moving back to Maine year-round. That idea is not new amid the pandemic, but something he has considered for a few years. An urban planner, Row’s father worked for the city of Portland when Row was growing up. The family moved often, including to Calcutta in India, where Row first traded the gray monotones of the New England landscape for “the color riot” of India. “It was a mind-blowing experience,” he said.

But even then, the family made it back to Maine nearly every summer. “The island is so central to my existence. That is my direct connection to Maine.”

At his island studio, Row is surrounded by ever-changing water and light. He hears it and sees it, endlessly. “I am trying to give these paintings a sense of movement and a sense of change,” he said. “That is part of the all-green, but different greens. Things are never the same for long.”

His shapes are eccentric, but they are not random or arbitrary. He expects people to feel comfortable standing in front of his paintings, despite them not being the expected rectangular, diamond or other common shape. Their orientation is not obvious. Standing in front of Row’s paintings feels something like standing at the helm and moving with the water as it tosses the boat. But just as there is a horizon line beyond every patch of rough water, there is a horizon line in every one of Row’s paintings, as well as a plumb line. Both stabilize the paintings and help the viewer balance the abstract shapes.

On wall from left are “Side Walk,” “Who’s Afraid of CMYK” and “Elector.’ Glass pieces on table are “Lighttraps I (Grey),” “Lighttraps II (Yellow),” “Lighttraps II (Red),” and “Lighttraps I (Green).” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Row’s paintings are large and fragmented. Some panels he joins together with fasteners. Others he hangs together as adjoining pieces, with three panels often making a whole single painting. His exploration of fragmentation began with the idea of memory, and specifically his own memory of place. “If you live in a certain town, you know that town because you put together a lot of fragmentary experiences to make a whole in your head. But you never see the whole town at once. You put it together,” he said.

“I began to think, our whole thing – the way we interact with reality – is really about putting fragments together and making sense of it.”

That is what Row does with all of his work. They don’t necessarily fit together neatly, but they become complete by being together.

“It’s part of being human,” he said.


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