Though it’s nearly impossible to corroborate, the medieval poet Dante Alighieri is often attributed with the pronouncement, “Nature is the art of God.” Whether true or not, much evidence of this seems to be on display in the downstairs galleries of the Bates College Museum of Art, in the exhibition “Carl Benton Straub: His Enduring Legacy” (through Oct. 16).

The galleries are closed to anyone without official Bates College identification until further notice, because of the transmissibility of the delta variant of COVID-19, but you can view the virtual exhibition at my.matterport.com.

Straub arrived at Bates in 1965 as a professor of religion and philosophy. His own scholarly work focused on the religious interpretation of the American landscape and on environmental ethics, which eventually led him to establish the environmental studies program at the college. He also created the Olivia and Ellwood Straub Endowment (named after his parents) to fund acquisitions of landscape works.

Clearly for Straub, nature and divinity were inseparable. The best works in this show get at the source of that connection in myriad ways. The bulk of the works are drawn from Straub’s own collection, which he bequeathed to the college upon his death in 2019. Others were purchased for the school through the endowment.

Joel Babb, Carl’s Path, 2009, oil on canvas, 41 ½ x 29 ¾ in.

The show opens with a very personal painting that is a highlight of the exhibition, Joel Babb’s “Carl’s Path.” It is personal because it depicts a forest on Straub’s own property in Sumner, where shafts of sunlight stream onto the dense undergrowth through an opening in the trees. There can be no doubt of the presence of God in this warm golden glow. In this way, Babb’s oil on canvas is reminiscent of the function of light in works by Hudson River painters like Edwin Church or John Frederick Kensett. It is an exquisite – and exquisitely transporting – image.

A quartet of color photos by Mark Silber titled “Carl Straub’s Land: A Study in Ferns, 2007-2008” is similarly personal in its documentation of Straub’s Sumner property. They are quiet images that nevertheless teem with life and growth. Melville McClean also photographs “Carl’s Pond” in the autumn, its surface covered with leaves.

Nature, of course, is a broad rubric that applies to both flora and fauna. There are some lovely pieces that show the latter, including Neil Welliver’s woodcut of trout, John Laurent’s painting of salmon attempting to scale a waterfall and Donald Lent’s etching of “Frogs for Carl.” But this is much more an exhibition about the spirit of the land in that the sense of reverence is more palpable in landscapes and seascapes.

Michele Lauriat, Untitled from Pemigewasset Series 6, 2018, mixed media, 55 x 56 in.

A truly awe-inspiring large-scale piece is Michele Lauriat’s untitled mixed media work from her “Pemigewasset Series 6, 2018.” If you stand back and squint your eyes, you can make out an image of what looks like a crevasse in the woods. But the overlaying of marks and other imagery is so dense that the basic subject is subsumed in a host of other phenomena.

The media are not listed, but I could decipher what looked like watercolor washes and deliberate drips, graphite drawing and precisely rendered elements such as bark and grasses, all applied to paper. The surface ripples with life in a way that feels literally wild (read: untamable), as if Lauriat is revealing every particle of energy, magnetic resonance and spiritual force emanating from soil, leaves, insects, both healthy and rotting wood, boulders – absolutely all of it. As our eyes move across the paper, we are pulled in and spit out again as certain elements recede and others rise to the surface. The complexity of the composition and our inability to separate one thing from the other effectively transmits the nature of all things as one, engaged in a perpetual rhythm of life, evolution and death.

Andrea Sulzer, “Red Dew,” c. 2010, colored pencil and graphite, 17 ½ x 13 ½ in.

This is one example of how Straub’s endowment is helping Bates acquire groundbreaking first-rate art. Another is Andrea Sulzer’s “Red Dew,” a similarly intricate work, though at a smaller scale, executed in colored pencil and graphite. It is more abstract, too, recalling without literalness a bed of long grasses in a forest or marsh that are bowed, weighted down and dampened by dew. The magical scene recalls – though in a far more layered and colorful way – Chinese landscape paintings.

Some work is more outrightly representational, though no less powerful. The rhythms of the cosmos and the presence of the divine are just as apparent in Dozier Bell’s gouache and collage “Echo” (you can almost hear the sound of the universe in this small work); Claire Van Vleit’s lithograph triptych on handmade paper “Wheeler Mountain Bowl” (where we just begin to grasp the vastness of pure being); Joseph Haroutunian’s quickly and energetically sketched watercolor “Orange Granite, near Round Pond Mountain (Unionville, Maine)” (there is nothing lifeless about these rocks) and the similarly rapidly sketched “Grey Sea, No. 2, 1966” by Arthur Thompson.

Other artists deploy bright color to exalt in the breathtaking visual feast gifted us by a greater power: Glenn Redell’s “Flower Field” saturated in otherworldly light, the livid blanket of blossoms in Joseph Nicoletti’s “Poppy Field, Bargino, Italy, 1988,” or James Linehan’s “Red Velvet.”

Still other artists focus on the mystical, profound silence of nature. This is true of black-and-white photography by Gifford Ewing and Bradford Washburn, for example, or the woozy, soft-focus landscapes of Kathleen Galligan (appropriately called “Quiet Time”) and the woodcuts of snowy trees by Bobette McCarthy. The beautifully patterned ceramics of Paul Heroux, on the other hand, can capture the quiet beauty of a blossom or incorporate chemistry diagrams that seem to attempt to quantify some divine alchemy.

Straub wrote in 2005: “Here, before us, are moments for pause, perhaps compelling us to remember the primordial yet delicate structure of grace which is life on earth.” There are many, many of those moments in this show.

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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