Jorge Peña, “Chiribiquete I” Photo by Bob Bond

The important role of catalysts in the development of art in Maine is currently on colorful display at the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, embodied by the exhibition “Acquired Symbols” (through July 17). By catalysts I mean people whose enthusiasm, influence, willpower and talent set changes in motion that reverberate in ways perhaps not immediately apparent in the larger art world.

In the case of the Maine Art Gallery itself, which is located in a circa 1807 schoolhouse considerably far removed from the commercial thoroughfare of Route 1, the catalyst was Mildred Burrage, an artist well known in her day for her mica collages, who had previously experimented with impressionism and Jackson Pollock-influenced abstraction. It was thanks to her and a handful of others that the gallery came into existence in the mid-1950s and became an incalculably important stimulus for modernist art in the state. The venue she created has exhibited, among other seminal Maine painters, Dahlov Ipcar, William Thon, Andrew Wyeth and William Zorach.

The current show honors another catalyst: the 92-year-old painter John Lorence, who taught art and design around the country. From 1970-77, his primary educational venue was the Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art). He also had stints at University of Maine in Augusta and the Haystack School in Deer Isle and, from 1990-92, served as the Maine Art Gallery’s director.

John Lorence, “Sycamores Near the Chateau” Photo by Bob Bond

He touched many lives through his teaching, which is the raison d’etre of “Acquired Symbols.” All the artists represented here have some connection to Lorence, as students, friends and fellow artists. The first works we encounter are his, and they are a delight. Most are landscapes painted on his travels. They illuminate a painter limning the edge between representation and abstraction. Some canvases, such as “Mount Wheeler, Taos, New Mexico” and the diptych “High Elevation #811,” fracture the landscape into various planes and apply paint in thinned washes reminiscent of Arthur Dove. Others, such as “Sycamores Near the Chateau,” have a collage quality to them while also picking up the warm light specific to Barbizon painters of the 19th century.

There are 10 other artists in the show, too many to cover individually here. Among the standouts is Jorge Peña, an intuitive, mostly self-taught Afro-Colombian painter who has taken workshops with various artists, including Lorence. Like his teacher, Peña’s paintings of nature straddle representation and abstraction, though his style is more expressive and his colors far more deeply saturated. Here, however, Peña exhibits abstract works, which are richly pigmented, lush and emotional.

The show’s title arose from a discussion among these artists, who arrived at the conclusion that art is frequently a symbolic expression of the contemporary context and events artists are living. It is that, of course. But it can also be quite literal and lacking in mystery, as well as completely devoid of symbolism of any kind. Peña’s “Chiribiquete I” and “Chiribiquete III” are true to the title in the sense that they employ an iconography (including a “jaguar bird”) within the abstract field that arises from Colombian culture. To drive this point home, next to these works he displays indigenous pottery that served as inspiration.

Clara Cohan also traffics in symbols. A sculptor working in bronze and wood, she lived an off-the-grid life for eight years and also connected with “earth-based cultures to understand how their symbol system conveys spiritual beliefs into everyday life” (according to a brochure available at the entry). “Arms Around It,” a sculpture whose embrace encompasses an entire planetary system, implies our oneness with the universe and complements the cosmic symbolism of Peña’s “Chiribiquete” works displayed nearby. Other works, such as “Guardian” and “Sharing of Sustenance,” are certainly about motherhood, but can also be referring to the larger mother of nature and the universe.

Peter Haller, “Bound Up” Photo by Bob Bond

Many artists, particularly women (and even more specifically, women connected to the art of the African diaspora), have employed fabric like paint in both figurative and abstract ways – Billie Zangewa, Faith Ringgold, Pia Camil and Sarah Symes, among them. Peter Haller, who began as a painter, is showing a variety of his fabric collages, many backed with buckram, a muslin-like fabric stiffened with sizing.

They are about exploration and construction, though the pervasive use of ethnic cloth in them also implies a connection to ancient cultures and mystical traditions (Haller is a longtime Buddhist). Most interesting to me were those where he deconstructed textiles, then used rag rug techniques to manifest them in new ways, which speaks to the constant morphing of reality and personal truth, and the unceasing spontaneous creation of forms in human life, whether physical, conceptual or spiritual.

Patrick Plourde is well known for his pine cones made of spades and spoons, both on display here. However, his creative use of other materials – including tin cans, hummingbird nests, oak gall (a habitat of parasitic wasp larvae) and dried poppy stalks – results in quirky, whimsical sculptures that recall Rube Goldberg’s crazy contraptions or the cobbled-together fantasy machinery of Hiyao Miyazaki’s films. Inspired by animist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, their enigmatic titles, such as “Fly Outward…Disappear Suddenly,” imply imaginary functions. The makeshift appearance of them is a metaphorical stand-in for the clunkiness and limitations of human understanding that we strive to transcend.

“Winston,” by Felice Boucher Photo by Bob Bond

In the upstairs gallery, Felice Boucher’s photographic portraits are hypnotic and arresting. Their composition, numinous light, costumes and propping create compelling works that are lyrical, mysterious and meditative. The gaze of her subjects is both serene and intense, suggesting inner reflection and multiple dimensions of being. Like Hendrik Kerstens’s series of portraits of his daughter Paula, Boucher’s recall the portraiture of 17th-century Dutch masters. Boucher has said they closely parallel her meditation practice, and the profound silence and depth we sense in them certainly bears this out.

Elliott Barowitz’s gouache-on-linen works continue a subtheme of “Acquired Symbols” – an experimentation with materials that make us see things in new ways. His “Three Images of Vietnam and One of Jerusalem” are essentially landscapes. But the interaction of gouache with linen, as well as whatever sealer Barowitz applied and the presentation of these in a single long vertical strip, make them feel like vintage postcard books or vending machine photos. They have a tactility and essence not usually apparent in gouache.

There are other reasons to make your way to this inconspicuous gallery in a quiet residential neighborhood overlooking Wiscasset’s Sheepscot River, including Ellen Gutekunst’s John Marin-like seascapes and Matt Blackwell’s folk art-like evocations of rural Maine life.

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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